Caroline Smith is an Assistant Professor of Writing at the George Washington University in Washington, DC where she helps college freshmen polish their writing skills through the First-Wear Writing program, a one-semester intensive writing course. Caroline majored in English at Moravian College and got her MA and PhDat the University of Delaware. She specializes in specializes in popular women’s fiction, advice literature, and women’s culture.
With this sort of expertise, we are particularly thrilled to have Caroline on as a judge for HubPages’ So You Think You Can Write Online contest- our April contest designed to challenge old and new Hubbers alike to write the best online articles possible.
To tell us more about herself and share some helpful writing tips, Caroline agreed to an interview. Enjoy her expert advice below!
Your work has been published several journals and you write a great deal – have you always enjoyed writing? How did you first get really involved with writing and literature?
To be honest, my first love is reading, and I think out of that love developed my interest in writing. When I was little, my parents always read to me, and as I grew up and was able to read on my own, I was rarely without a book in hand. My dad was a high school basketball coach, and we went to see a lot of games when I was little. My family likes to joke that I would always be on the sidelines reading, having no idea of what was going on around me. Because I read so much, I also became interested in creative writing. Then, in a 12th grade English class, I remember getting really invested in a paper about Hamlet. My teacher that year was excellent. She took us to the computer lab and would have us draft and redraft our essays. I found it fascinating the way that my writing took shape over those few weeks, and from there, I got even more addicted to reading and writing.
You wrote a dissertation on chick lit (which, to the sadly uninitiated, is a contemporary literary genre which addresses modern womanhood in an often humorous manner), and with your expertise on the genre – one of the newer ones on the literary scene – you probably have your finger on the pulse of a lot of interesting trends in modern writing. What would you say are some interesting new developments in the writing world when it comes to both books and online content?
Right now, I’m working on a second book project, which focuses on women’s food memoirs – true stories written by women that also contain recipes. The new project developed from my work on chick lit (and my love of Martha Stewart and all things food related!). I had found when I was writing that book that a lot of the authors were preoccupied with the home and cooking even though they were clearly positioning themselves as career driven, employed primarily outside the home. I began to notice this trend in popular writing – women writing about their lives through the meals that they cook and eat. Of course, the book Julie and Julia by Julie Powell was incredibly successful, but there are a lot of other great food memoirs, too – Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper by Fuschia Dunlop and Untangling My Chopsticks by Victoria Abbott Riccardi. And, of course, online, you have tons of amazing food blogs – Orangette, Gluten-Free Girl, Smitten Kitchen.
At the George Washington University, you are involved with the First Year Writing program, which is sort of like a writing bootcamp for college freshmen. You probably see a lot of mistakes when you’re helping people improve their writing – what are the most common ones that you see?
First of all, I love teaching writing, and I am consistently impressed with the level at which George Washington students can write – even before they come to college. That’s what makes my job so exciting – that I get to work with students who have a really good basis already. As a result, we can really concentrate on more sophisticated writing concepts. Of course, at the same time, everyone needs a little reminder as to how important the basics are. I tell my students to never underestimate the power of a good topic sentence. And, at the college level, one of the key concepts we focus on in my class is moving beyond the “listing thesis” and towards developing arguments that highlight connections between points for a more cohesive argument.
While we’re on the subject of grammar, what’s your biggest grammar pet peeve?
A rule which drives me nuts – both as a writer because I tend to forget to do it and as a reader – is not providing a noun after words like “this.” Technically, you need some sort of noun after “this” because it acts in the same way that “a,” “an,” or “the” does. It can’t really stand alone. It’s hard to remember to do this, though…as you can see.
When it comes to writing articles online, informal writing tends to reign supreme, but people often become so informal as to abandon correct grammar altogether. How can online writers find a happy medium between a friendly, ‘contemporary’ tone and technically correct writing?
Personally, I like the informal style of writing that many online writers have adopted, but I also think that there’s a time and place for it. In my class, we talk a lot about being aware of the genre for which you are writing as well as the audience. I feel as though many people who read writing online are not expecting the same kind of prose that you would from a scholarly article, and that’s okay. But, at the same time, sloppy grammar and mechanics can just take away from a writer’s credibility. I’m not as apt to trust the argument of someone who can’t use basic proper grammar. An informal tone doesn’t have to equate to sloppy writing.
If you could suggest just a few very general rules of thumb to every writer in the world, what would they be?
These are thoughtful questions, Simone! I think the one piece of advice that I would offer most writers – and which I should really abide by more myself – is to write everyday. Writing is like a lot of other things. It takes practice, and the more you do it, the better you’ll become. Being disciplined about your craft is important. A lot of times we think of writers as being divinely inspired, furiously scribbling when their muse hits. But, in truth, a lot of very good, well respected writers are the ones who really apply themselves to their work.
When you’re generally browsing around online, what sort of indicators do you use when judging whether something is worth reading all the way through – or reading at all?
I always look for an interesting “hook” in the opening of a piece. If an online article doesn’t grab me immediately, I’m likely to move onto something else. I once had a creative writing teacher who told me that the first sentence of a short story means everything, and I tend to still believe that. For me, the opening really defines the piece and will determine whether or not I want to keep reading.
Finally, do you have any tips for those entering the So You Think You Can Write Online contest?
In general, I’d say that some of the best writing that I’ve read has some sort of passion behind it. You can always tell when a writer is connected with or invested in his/her subject matter. And, good topic sentences don’t hurt either. I’m looking forward to reviewing the submissions!
[Thanks, Caroline Smith!]
For more information on So You Think You Can Write Online, visit the official contest page.