CJ’s blog: A lesson in personification…with Tommy the Truck



As I sit down on my comfy sofa to write blogs, she welcomes me like one of Grandmum’s warm oatmeal cookies…





…cushions made with just the right amount of butter and water, taken from the oven while still soft, enveloping my posterior as if to say, “There, now. You are safe, warm and loved.”  


My couch; I love her so.



Whether you use one word or a whole sentence, personification (when not overdone) can make your writing relatable.


Most of us know the nature of people–what they are like, how they behave; but any time you apply human qualities to inanimate objects, you use personification.


You can achieve personification subtly; one well-placed human trait can personify your words and create a memorable image for your reader:


The stars winked at me as I embarked on my voyage.

I paused to listen with joy as the wind sang in my ears.


Stars winking? Wind singing?


If you’re someone who takes thing literally, you might find personification is not for you.



But don’t forget what is possible within your imagination!  


You have experienced the stars and the wind as inanimate elements in your daily life. Now you add a “human” trait to deepen your familiarity, and, presto!  Out comes a personification.



Similes, metaphors, and personification

Personification in the form of a word or a few words can also be considered a metaphor or a simile. In fact, some may say that all personifications are metaphors and similes, but not all metaphors and similes are personifications.


However, certain brands of personification do not qualify as similes, which happens when you clearly treat an inanimate object as if it were human (usually in fiction or maybe in a journal—used just for humor).


Tommy the Truck:  a bittersweet story of personification


The following posts, adapted from my Facebook page, involve the ill health and eventual passing of my pickup truck; judging from the emotional reactions, comments, and LIKEs elicited from my posts on Tommy, well, my truck may as well have been human:


January 7th: Downtown Springfield: Tommy had to take a ride in an ambulance to a garage for a diagnosis tomorrow.  Poor twuk has never been away from Mommy this long.







January 10th:  Tommy made it through his surgery. He is still running roughly, however. As he limps down the road, I feel his pain.








photo 3January 20th:    Poor Tommy, my truck, had to be towed again from work last Thursday. He was in the truck hospital again and had computer board surgery. He got a used computer, but he will need to be replaced. His compression is poor. I will have to get a different vehicle in a month or so when I can afford it.




“Alas, poor Tommy (Yorick)! I knew him, Horatio…” (But I moved four times with all my stuff in his truck bed, and he is only a 4 cylinder.) Poor little guy. 



My Facebook status updates for Tommy were not only met with an outpouring of LIKEs and comments, but with heartfelt wishes for Tommy to “get well soon.” 



When later I announced Tommy’s poor prognosis, wishes for recovery becoming condolences, my Facebook friends didn’t disappoint:


…Tommy had lived a full life.


…May he rest in peace in junkyard heaven.


…Maybe he just wants to take early retirement.






So, in my case, on Facebook, personification worked on its audience and delivered the sympathy I probably had been craving at the time.







Still skeptical about the effectiveness of personification? 


Let’s try an experiment.


Let’s remove personification from my post to a stripped-down (forgive me) version: 



My truck broke down.



And its lackluster follow-up post:  



My truck broke down, again.



How many LIKEs, comments, shares and sympathies might be warranted now?


I rest my case.

stock-photo-17388058-crying-african-american-female-nurseAs an aside…It’s not nice to “LIKE” something tragic, but people do it every day:


“My father died.”


Susie likes your post.  


Bad, bad, bad.  Be careful.


REMEMBER:  Use personification sparingly in writing that allows for a degree of individual flair. 


Be sure you stay in context, too.


stop sign


Where personification does not belong

Personification has no business poking its nose into serious reports…nor should personification butt in where scholarly writing is concerned… except possibly when writing in a style that might allow for or even reward personification (e.g. when your essay is about a genre that uses personification).



Thou shalt not commit a syntax error

Do not interject a phrase that is worded informally (meaning the same way you speak) using the syntax you developed from childhood until now.  Resist the temptation to insert your brand of poetic flair into formal writing.  If you simply cannot help yourself, do so at your peril.


Read up on syntax clashes and syntax errors, and you’ll find it can be quite technical.  The least you need to know: stick with one style throughout your writing.  Failing that, contact us for help with your scholarly writing.


And may your day be filled with all the glow of a kid with a lollipop.    

Molly’s guest edublog: How to write a literature review

Guest blogger: playwright, satirist, and stand-up writer, Molly Bixby, offers her take on literature reviews

Literature reviews for your bachelor’s or master’s program are a far cry from your fifth-grade book report.

Don’t feel dumb if you don’t know what a lit review is.  Higher ed should require a course called Literature Reviews 101 as early as possible for every student. 

Maybe you were taught basic concepts of the lit review and how to design one, but your instructor didn’t teach it in a way you could understand.

When a professor or TA presents something new and complex in a monotone voice with all the excitement of a toilet running all night, well, good luck staying awake, much less retaining any content. 

You may only now be learning the term “literature review”–as you write your thesis for a master’s degree–which might seem to you like too little too late.

I hope the following conversation between two college students will help you understand and remember the basics of a literature review.


What’s a lit review?  Meet Jarod and Jenny

Jarod, a tall, handsome psych major, strolled up to a round table in the college student union and plopped down his heavy book bag. It landed on Jenny’s right foot.

“Ouch! Ya JERK!” Jenny said as she laughed and slapped Jarod’s shoulder. Jenny and Jarod were, so far, just friends, but it was obvious to even the most casual observer that the attraction was mutual.

“Hey, I’m not doing anything tonight. You?” Jarod asked, as he poured salt on the top of her hand, wooing in a primitive way.

“Well,” Jenny said as she blew the salt into Jarod’s shiny, thick hair, “I have to write a ‘literature review’ of some sort as part of my final thesis, but that should only take about fifteen minutes if I pick a short book about whatever psychology topic I decide to grab out of the textbook.”

“Whoa! Wait!” Jarod dropped the flirting and added genuine concern. “A lit review is a very time-consuming step in your thesis. You don’t just write a review about a book.”

Jenny blushed. “It is a book review, though, right? I mean, I wrote tons of book reviews in fourth, fifth and sixth grades. They’re simple.” Even though Jenny said that to Jarod out loud, she was already worried she had just made a fool of herself in front of the guy she liked.


A literature review is a book report–times 30 or 40

Jarod reassured Jenny. “A book report, a literature review….they sound like they would be exactly the same, don’t they? Well, there is a tiny thing they have in common. A literature review is a book report–times thirty or forty.”

“Yikes!!! I have to read that many books?”

“Well, you don’t necessarily have to read whole books.  And not all of your sources need to be books, either.  You can use journal articles, white papers, and other sources.


Your professor will ask you to list tons of sources from professional literature. Be sure to:


1.  Get articles written by credible researchers who have already analyzed the topic that relates to the thesis you want to prove…or improve upon.


2.  Make a bibliography and wade through the best of the best on your topic.  


3.  Build upon theories already established by researchers. 


“I will make a huge bibliography, then. That’s harder, but not like walking on water.” Jenny smiled at Jarod.

“Well…that’s just the start. The bibliography is just in your notes. When you weed through all of your sources and pick the best ones, you then need to write the lit review.


How to organize and write a literature review

Jenny got flustered.  “This could take forever to do!  Maybe I should just withdraw from school!”

“Jenny, don’t panic.  Here’s what you do:  


1.  Review all of the sources you’ve collected.  That means skim/read your sources!  


2. Once you understand the research you’ve collected, describe how these past discoveries are connected.


3.  Explain how you concluded what you did.  Add a different spin to your work. Try to conclude something that others haven’t.


4.  You can also talk about how earlier studies were limited in what they did. Explain what you plan to do differently to deal with those limitations in your study.


5.  In fact, addressing a limitation in a past study can be the slightly different spin you offer! Make constructive criticisms of past research designs.


Jenny shrieked. “This is just too much, Jarod. So, what now?  Go online and find tons of bibliography sources tonight?”


Examples of sources that are not scholarly

“Jenny, I know you hate the library, but go there anyway.  

Avoid WikipediaAnyone can claim anything as fact on Wiki, even though the people at Wikipedia seem to be cleaning it up to become more credible. The content is written by…anybody. That’s why Wiki is frowned upon as a credible source.


Don’t use anything from Ask.Com or Yahoo Answers, either. Those people will tell you that a jellyfish eats more than a peanut butter fish.


****Get the best and most sources you can from databases.  Learn to use them!  Then wade through them.  


How to read sources, form ideas, and build connections

Jarod tried to reassure Jenny,  “Now don’t freak out…but you need to actually read your sources.  I don’t mean read them word for word, but at least skim each article, pamphlet, book, etc., until you decide what you’re going to try to prove. 

Remember, try to add something new to what the experts have already done. It’s an ego trip, kind of, to find something others may not have correlated, but you have correlated!”

“So,” thought Jenny aloud, “…in this case, my class is psychology. You’re saying I need to think of something new to say about psychology that all of the greats haven’t already thought about? How can little ol’ me do that?”

“Oh, come on,” Jarod challenged. Almost everything has psychology behind it. Name something.”

Jenny poked her finger into the factory-made hole in the expensive jeans Jarod was wearing. The new jeans were made to look worn, with a hole on the thigh. “How about this hole, Dr. Freud?” She taunted.

“Well,” Jarod said, “I could go with Freud, actually, and talk about how he thought so many things were phallic, but I think I would go with Pavlov’s dog.  

Yes! Pavlov’s dog and its correlation to fashion trends. The dog learned to salivate when it heard a bell because it knew the bell meant food was coming. If I wear these jeans, both females and males say to me, ‘Hey, I love those jeans!’ but I notice their eyes go to the hole in the denim. So, like Pavlov’s dog, I like that, and I want to buy new holey jeans each time I get eyed.”

“Oh, psychology and fashion! You’re right, Jarod! There must be tons of things that I could theorize to be related to psychology!”

“Yes! But, if your prof wants you to write a literature review, just think of your third grade math teacher who always said, “You must show your work!”

The purpose is not to make you want to jump off a bridge but to show that you truly understand the works of those who paved the way for us.


How to write the thesis statement:  Start broad, end narrow (the inverted triangle approach)

“Do I need to start with the same thesis statement that my final thesis will start with?”

“No way, Jenny!  Here’s what to do:


1.  Start with a broad area and narrow it down.


2.  No thesis statement should ever be too broad. In fact, you can take that upside-down triangle and move from the broadest of the great thinkers to the smallest point you created and flip it over.


3.  In other words: start your final paper with your point. Then use points that are broader to show how you plan to support that point in your thesis paragraph.”


 Need more help?  

“Jenny, here’s a cool link to The Writing Center at UW-Madison if you want to learn more about lit reviews.”

“You’re so smart, Jarod. You never make me feel dumb, either.”

“Well, you can’t know something you aren’t taught. If you don’t learn it on your own or by a caring person, well…I once knew a guy with a developmental disability who at age 70 still didn’t know how to toilet himself because his impatient trainer stopped trying halfway through.” 

Jenny laughed but then looked at Jarod sideways. “Are you saying I don’t know how to toilet myself?” She had a little nervous giggle.

“No! Ha ha ha! I’m saying that you’ll do a fabulous job now that somebody who cares about you has just….told you how fabulous you are.” He looked down, nervously, cleared his throat, and added, “You need to read more about lit reviews now, though.  And get your stockpile of expert writings from a database and/or other credible sources so you can get your thesis done.  

Then maybe we can talk about the sex appeal of holes in $75 jeans firsthandedly.”


Mike’s blog: Make a smooth transition

You have thoroughly researched your content. You’ve distilled your arguments into cogent and concise sections.

You’ve assembled your paper in a manner that implies direct relationships between  topics, but your instructor still says you’re missing something, that your paper is “choppy” or that your  thoughts “jump all over the place.”  

Clearly, your instructor is missing something, right? All of the information is right there, in a straight line,  what could be missing?

In this scenario, hopefully your instructor would be kind enough to clue you in to the missing element:  transitions.


The train analogy 

Transitions can be easy to ignore–because they come so naturally. If your paper is a train, your thesis statement is the engine and your arguments are the cars.


Transitions are the links between cars. The cars will still be filled with material, but without the links, they’ll fall away without getting delivered



The Billy Joel method

If you are of a certain age, you’ve probably heard Billy Joel’s song We Didn’t Start the Fire more times than you care to imagine.

The song is a perfect example of how removing transitions also removes any meaningful relationship between topics.

Do Sputnik and Chou en-Lai have anything in common? Maybe, but you wouldn’t know from the song.



REM “logic”


A better example is REM’s classic It’s the End of the World.


What does Leonard Bernstein have to do with anything? No one knows. Just sing the chorus.



Linear thoughts don’t always translate to paper

While transitions typically come naturally in linear thought, there are many ways they can become lost in constructing a paper. Often times papers are not written in a linear fashion, or the order of arguments will be shifted from one draft to another. A transition appropriate from one argument to the next might not work when the order is rearranged.


When sections of a group project are individually crafted, the leader of the group needs to craft reasonable transitions between one person’s thoughts and another’s to illuminate the greater purpose of the paper.



Haste makes…I forget

stop sign


Writing too quickly can lead to logic leaps that make sense in the writer’s brain but will leave readers wondering how topics relate. This can happen when the writer has a very clear understanding of the topics or arguments they want to cover, and they want to get them all into the document before they forget any of them.


This can also happen when “the perfect sentence” pops into the writer’s mind. The goal then shifts to getting all of the perfunctory writing out of the way before the sentence is lost in the hollows of the mind.


The best way to avoid mistakes caused by writing too quickly?  Keep a detailed outline of your paper.

Inside your outline, you can use shorthand markers to get to the better-formed thoughts, allowing you to write in as little or as much detail as you like before worrying about the specific ways to connect your thoughts.

If you work exclusively within a word processor, it’s not a bad idea to keep a good ol’ pen and paper on hand to scrawl out a spontaneous epiphany without having to worry about switching back and forth between your outline and main document.


Words, phrases, sentences

Transitions take a handful of forms across a multitude of categories. The forms include these transitional words:






Transitional phrases:


in this scenario

for that purpose

in the meantime 


Or transitional sentences:


Clearly, your instructor is missing something, right? All of the information is right there, in a straight line, what could be missing?


The University of Wisconsin and Michigan State both have an excellent compilation of transitional words and phrases broken down by contextual category.


Transitions serve as the signposts of logic within a text. They don’t describe a thought or argument specifically, but they do illustrate how thoughts and arguments are connected and therefore related, or not.


Without them, your paper will be no better than a Billy Joel  song. You’re better than that. I know you are.


For further reading, UNC-Chapel Hill has a terrific virtual handout that digs deeper into the specifics of transitions and transitional expressions.


Mike’s blog: The wayward subject: an object lesson in passive voice


We are delighted to welcome Michael P. Bischoff, radio news reporter at 620 WTMJ, who will be blogging with us this summer.

Michael, who studied film production at UWM, is also a founding member and one of the principal writers and actors in Milwaukee Comedy’s Variety Hour Happy Hour, a sketch comedy show.

In the past, Michael has written articles for Third Coast Digest (now Urban Milwaukee Dial) and was a featured blogger for Milwaukee Magazine. His short story, A Room In New York. 1932., was published in Skive Magazine (Australia) in 2009. A lifelong Wisconsinite, Michael resides in Bay View.


If you’re the sort of person who enjoys watching heads explode (and really, who isn’t?), next time you’re hanging out with a composition instructor or a high school English teacher, utter these two words, grab a bowl of popcorn and take a seat: passive voice.

Their dander shall remit itself to the upright, locked position.

After a few semesters of reading limp, lifeless essays and prose, chances are you’d learn to sympathize.

Passive Versus Active

The passive voice is the writing equivalent of the Monday morning commute. Writing in the active voice, by comparison, makes an essay/paper/story read like it’s leaving work early ahead of a four-day weekend.

Think of a sportscast. The immediacy of action dictates the immediacy of voice. A listener might very well hear the following during a baseball game:

Carpenter with the pitch. It’s just a bit outside, and that’s ball four. He couldn’t hit the corner with the fastball.

Nothing out of the ordinary there, the subjects and verbs in time with the action and paint a clear portrait of the action.

Now, while the pitching coach comes out to discuss that walk, let’s read the same thing, but in the passive voice:

The pitch is thrown by Carpenter, and the ball is caught, but outside, and ball four is called by the umpire. The corner could not be hit by his fastball.

Yikes, we may have to go to the bullpen.

So what exactly is the problem with the second sentence?

It isn’t technically wrong, and it conveys the identical information as the first, active-voiced sentence. But it does so in a wayward, meandering manner.

That’s the problem with passive sentences: they are also lazy sentences. They know there’s an object and a subject, but they aren’t terribly concerned about which is which.

It’s all about clarity

Let’s compare the first sentences of each example (with a slight modification, just to avoid that preposition moonlighting as a verb):

Carpenter throws the pitch.

Pretty clear, right? Our subject, “Carpenter,” leads the way, letting us know whom we’re talking about. He “throws,” to let us know what he’s doing, and because we’re completists “the pitch” lets us know what object has been thrown.

The pitch is thrown by Carpenter.

This sentence wants to trick us. It has introduced “the pitch” as the actor. The listener has to backtrack and rearrange the sequence once it’s revealed “Carpenter” is the one actually directing the action. Let’s change it slightly:

The pitch is thrown.

You can’t always depend on the green squiggly line to tell you when your sentences are passive.

The above is less a sentence and more an independent clause, but your grammar checker will see a perfectly fine sentence, incorrectly assuming “thrown” is an adjective to describe the pitch.

If a sentence doesn’t answer the question “By whom?” it is a passive sentence.

The writing center at UNC-Chapel Hill has a couple of handy guidelines for identifying and correcting passive sentences. In short, any sentence that uses form of “to be” (is, are, was, will be, etc.) combined directly with a past participle is taking a one-way trip to passive town.

But wait!  Aren’t there any situations where the passive voice is the better option?

Indeed, there are limited instances where writing passively is acceptable, or even preferable, but it depends upon context.

Consider the following two sentences:


The Packers defense intercepted Jay Cutler four times.


Jay Cutler was intercepted four times [by the Packers defense].

Either sentence could lead a paragraph describing Jay Cutler’s interceptions, but the correct choice depends on the context of the discussion.

The active-voiced sentence tells us we’re going to be talking about the Packers defense. That Jay Cutler was the individual throwing the interceptions is incidental to the fact the defense intercepted them.

However, if our aim is to question Jay Cutler’s shortcomings as a quarterback, the Packers defense is less important, even though it is what perpetrated the intercepting. That paragraph might look something like this:

Jay Cutler was intercepted four times Sunday night. He showed a lack of patience as the game wore on, forcing passes into coverage and taking unnecessary risks…

The rest of the paragraph immediately reverts to the active voice after establishing Jay Cutler as the topic of discussion. Point being, while sparing and deliberate use of the passive voice is forgivable, it’s the writer’s job to add clarity.

In most circumstances, we can faithfully adhere to Orwell’s fourth rule of political writing: the active voice is preferable to the passive voice wherever possible. The devil is in developing the critical eye to recognize it, hiding in plain sight within the body of a text. It takes a little bit of work and patience, but your writing (not to mention your TA/English teacher/composition instructor) will be better off for the effort.

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