Excel Bar Graphs

These days, everyone and their mother has “Microsoft Excel” listed as one of their skills on LinkedIn. So you probably already know that Excel is a powerful tool for data analysis, manipulation, and visualization. Working in Marketing Analytics, I literally use Excel every single day. (In fact, you might have noticed that I’ve been AWOL on the blog recently — I’ve been so busy with work that all I can even think about is Excel.) Some people are “Excel Wizards”, using tons of shortcuts and fancy formulae. If that’s you, more power to you! But in the end, it’s the output that matters: how will you communicate your work to an audience of colleagues or clients? Often you’ll present your findings in a series of charts or graphs. And when I see a professional slide deck full of ugly, unpolished, or even default-style Excel bar graphs (or any graphs), it drives me up the wall.

I want to help you. Continue reading

How I Won NaNoWriMo Six Times

Welcome to November – the first day of the National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. I hope you thoroughly enjoyed your Hallowe’en, because that’s the last chance you’ll have to experience joy and happiness for the next thirty days.

Just kidding!

I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo six times over the past eight years. And each of those times, I’ve “won” the challenge, meaning I successfully wrote the first draft of a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. (Check out this post for more info on NaNo and why you should join me this year.) This is not an easy thing to do, but it is a fun thing to do, and it’s a really neat experience to be able to truthfully call yourself a novelist (at least in progress).

Many people have had false starts and failed years when participating in the writing marathon, which is totally normal. So how did I manage to win each and every time I signed up to write? Here’s my advice for current and future Wrimos hoping to knock it out of the park this year.

Start with a Winning Mindset

I’ve heard lots of people, in person and on the NaNoWriMo forums, saying things like this:

  • “I’m going to try NaNoWriMo this year.”
  • “I have a huge problem with procrastination, but we’ll see how it goes.”
  • “My cousin’s wedding is mid-November, so I probably won’t finish.”
  • “I’ve never won before, and this year likely won’t be any different.”
  • Or my personal favourite: “I missed the first day. Maybe I’ll try again next year.”

STOP. Right now. If you head into this challenge with the mindset of failure, or even potential failure, you are so much more likely to give up all motivation and sell yourself short.

I went into my first NaNoWriMo thinking that I was going to write a book in a month. I wasn’t going to try to do it, I wasn’t going to hope I could do it – I was just going to do it. This year is the busiest and most stressful of my life so far, and I’m still not thinking about whether I might fail. (Though I am thinking about whether this is the craziest idea ever…!)

I’m not just promoting a motivational technique here. From what I’ve seen, many people use the excuse, “I always knew I wouldn’t be able to do it” to drop out of the challenge long before they needed to or should have. Give yourself a fair chance. Consider it something you’re going to do for sure.

Get in the Habit

All it takes to win NaNoWriMo is 1667 words per day. Not perfect words, but simply words. I can usually bang that out in 30-45 minutes. Maybe it takes you a little longer, but that’s okay.

Now, if you wait for five days (because you’re so busy with work, school, or anything else to spare 30-45 minutes), you’ve now got a backlog of 8333 words (or so). And because we’re all human and not robots, it’s not simply a matter of multiplying 30-45 minutes by 5. You’ll need to add time for rest, food, interruptions, bathroom breaks, procrastination… and suddenly, you’ve spent an entire Saturday trying to catch up. Overwhelming to say the least. I’ve done it, and it’s definitely not the ideal case.

The trick is to get into a habit of writing every day, or almost every day. Find the free time in your day at which you’re most productive, and use that time for a writing routine. For me, it’s usually around 9pm, but I’ll squeeze it in whenever I can – as long as I’m writing every day.

So what happens when you do fall behind? Try the next two tips:

Get Out of the House

When I’m in a writing rut, I find it’s so important to get a change of scenery, especially if the new locale has a certain buzzing, writerly energy about it. The typical spots are coffee shops and libraries, but anywhere will do.

It’s also often better with other writers! Take your Wrimo friends along, or join a local Write-In organized by your city’s Municipal Liaison.


Sometimes, you just don’t have the time or energy to generate well-crafted, thoughtful prose to hit your daily wordcount. Besides, the focus of NaNoWriMo is quantity over quality – editing is where the quality comes in, and that can wait until December. I often use “word sprints” to boost my wordcount without taking up hours of precious time.

Word sprints are simply periods over which you write really, really fast, without really stopping to think or edit. You can either write for a defined length of time, or you can try to hit a particular word goal as fast as possible. NaNoWriMo runs “official” word sprints on Twitter so that you can race against your fellow Wrimos. But for writing on your own terms, you can definitely race against the clock instead.

It also helps to have some sprinting tools in your back pocket. My two favourite websites for this are Written? Kitten! and Write or Die (I use the free version). Check them both out for two very different varieties of motivation.

Tell Everyone You’re Doing NaNoWriMo

If I hadn’t blogged about it and talked about it with basically everyone I know, I probably wouldn’t be doing it this year.  For me, this is probably the most effective method for making sure I don’t back out. So here we are.

Well, folks, that about covers the entirety of my plan to write a novel in a month for the seventh (eek!) time. I am starting off today with a single idea and literally no other details prepared. I’m definitely pantsing it this year!

Are you joining me for NaNoWriMo 2016? What tips do you have for aspiring novelists-in-a-month?

Smartphone Astrophotography with Novagrade

Hello all — I have returned from Starfest, Canada’s largest annual astronomy/camping conference! We had fabulous weather and clear skies for (almost) the entire week straight. There were lots of opportunities to use telescopes, binoculars, and even our eyes to observe the skies, especially the Perseid meteor shower! While real-time observing has its merits, many Starfest attendees are also heavily involved in astrophotography: taking photos of planets, stars, galaxies, or the night sky in general. This year at Starfest, I tried out smartphone astrophotography for the very first time.

Heading into this week of astronomy, I brought my 10-year-old automated telescope along with me. My only camera is a Nikon point-and-shoot. It’s not suited for long exposures or detailed images, both of which are important for “imaging” astronomical objects. However, I’d recently heard about a new trend in astrophotography that would take advantage of a camera most people already have: their smartphone.

It’s not enough to hold up your smartphone to a telescope eyepiece and snap a picture, though. You have to keep incredibly still, and if your phone moves out of alignment, you’ll see nothing but a black screen. That’s why Joe and I decided to make a purchase through Red Raven Marketing, one of Starfest’s vendors, at this year’s conference:

The Novagrade Phone Adapter for Smartphone Astrophotography

 Smartphone Astrophotography with Novagrade

The phone adapter is a device that latches onto any reasonably-sized smartphone or mini tablet. The side clamps are spring-loaded, and the back of the device has an adjustable hole to accommodate any camera placement. We found that it was easier to have the adapter hold the phone upside down. That way, thee little knob above the phone (see above) would support the phone’s weight instead. The adapter then twists onto a telescope eyepiece or camera using a compression ring.

 Smartphone Astrophotography: Novagrade Compression Ring

For our first foray into smartphone astrophotography, also known as digiscoping, we used 2″ eyepieces and a Samsung Galaxy S6. We used the Pro Mode of the phone’s built-in camera app to take pictures. That allowed up to 10 seconds of exposure, and we could play around with brightness and focus to try and optimize our images. Some turned out really cool, but we struggled with some others. We’re still learning! I’ve just used PicMonkey to apply some filters to these images. (That’s known in the astrophotography world as “post-processing”, apparently.) Take a look!

The Crescent Moon

 Smartphone Astrophotography — The Moon


 Smartphone Astrophotography — Saturn

Jupiter, and some of its moons

 Smartphone Astrophotography — Jupiter

The Double Cluster in Perseus

 Smartphone Astrophotography — Double Cluster

(Okay, it basically looks like a bunch of stars…)

Another important aspect of this process was the Twilight app. We were taking photos in the dark and looking at faint objects in a telescope, so we didn’t want to ruin night vision for ourselves or the other campers around us. This program applied a red tint to everything on the phone screen. This way, our eyes didn’t get blown out by bright white light every time we looked at it. The only downside was having to take a break every couple hours to look at all of our images in full light, to make sure they still looked good!

Want to use this technology for yourself? You’ll need a smartphone, an adapter like ours, and something with an eyepiece. That could be a telescope, a birding scope, perhaps binoculars… or maybe even a microscope! And as for me, Joe and I are going to keep experimenting with our Novagrade Phone Adapter!

How do you enjoy the night sky?

Disclaimer: This post is not affiliated or compensated in any way. I just enjoy sharing about cool products!

Starfest: The Ultimate Astronomy Camping Experience

Happy Tuesday — it’s a very exciting day! Starting today, my family and I are taking our annual camping vacation to River Place Campground for a much-anticipated event: Starfest!

What’s Starfest?

Starfest is Canada’s largest “Star Party”. That’s an amateur astronomy conference event. By day, Starfest is a camping trip with the added bonus of speakers, workshops, access to astronomy equipment vendors, kids activities, and campground amenities (yes, that includes showers, thank goodness. And there’s a pool!). Some of us also take the opportunity to embark on day trips to nearby small towns for sightseeing and shopping. By night, everyone breaks out their telescopes to observe or take astrophotos.

If you don’t have a telescope, fear not! The night-time entertainment also includes a guided Sky Tour as an intro to astronomy for newcomers. Plus, many campers with large telescopes would be happy to show you what their telescope is viewing — as long as they don’t have a camera plugged into the eyepiece instead! During the day, there is also a chance to do some observing of the Sun using specially-crafted filters to protect your vision.

Believe it or not, I didn’t first hear of this event while studying physics in school. In fact, I’ve been a die-hard attendee since I was three years old. My dad has been an astronomy hobbyist for years, and he began bringing the whole family along in 1996. Here we are, twenty years later!

Who should attend?

  • Anyone with any level of interest in astronomy, telescopes, or space science — and their families and friends!
  • Anyone who has been meaning to book a camping trip all summer, and just hasn’t gotten around to it yet..

The campground is located about two hours north-west of downtown Toronto. That’s fairly close to the GTA compared to a lot of other camping destinations. And you get all of the extra perks of an astronomy conference as well!

What’s special about Starfest this year?

2016 is the 35th anniversary of Starfest, and the conference theme is “Big Astronomy”. That means galaxies, black holes, solar storms, and massive telescopes. If you’ve ever been amazed by the sheer scale of our universe, this year is for you!

Does it start today? How do I register in time!?

Don’t worry! I’m just a keener and going up to Starfest early. The official event starts on Thursday evening and runs until Sunday morning. Feel free to arrive and register at the door anytime before noon on Saturday. You can also set your departure date as any day as well. Keep in mind, though, that the keynote speaker will present on Saturday evening — followed by the highly-anticipated door prize draw for all registrants. Come one, come all: you have to be present to win a prize! I was extremely fortunate to win this beauty as the grand prize back in 2005:

 Starfest 2016 — My Telescope

What if the skies aren’t going to be clear?

Ah, the age-old Starfest question. Everyone devoted to the hobby of astronomy hopes for clear skies every single night. The campsite was chosen specifically because of its dark night skies, compared to the Toronto area. However, if there are some clouds, or even if it rains (or if there’s a tornado or two…), you still get every other perk of attending the event! Why waste an opportunity for a mini-vacation? So in my opinion, if the skies aren’t going to be clear, come anyway! It’s going to be great!

Well, folks, I’m heading off to Starfest — hope to see you there! Clear skies!

Pokémon Go Problems

It’s the gaming craze that’s swept the nation, and it’s a very fun and surreal bandwagon to hop on. Pokémon Go has people literally searching their neighbourhoods for Pokémon, with many of them reliving their 90’s childhood in the process.

But Pokémon Go is not without its problems. Its many, many problems. Problems such as…

When your country’s release is over a week after the USA’s.

Canada and Europe freaked out online when America got Pokémon Go before they did. Of course, everyone figured out the workaround, but then panicked, believing the rumour that it would get them banned from the real game once it launched. Plus, there were huge risks of inadvertently downloading malware along with the game if the source was unsafe.

In spite of all that, after six days of watching US social media blow up, I figured I should try it out anyway. And that led me to problem number two.

When the Pokémon Go servers are down.

All the time. Whether you’re logging in or in the middle of gameplay, the servers get overloaded so frequently.

I feel bad for Niantic, to be honest — the level of engagement in this game was totally unprecedented. How could they have known they would need server support for the biggest mobile game ever, especially with its regional launch strategy? Nevertheless, Nintendo probably should have tipped off their developers to the phenomenon they were about to unleash.

When your phone isn’t supported.

Canada finally got its release on July 17th, less than a week ago. I opened Google Play and searched for Pokémon Go, and… it wasn’t there.

Oh, come on!!

Turns out my Samsung Galaxy S3 is so ancient now that it won’t support the game. Boo. And because of everyone’s favourite No Buy July challenge, I can’t get a new phone until August!

Luckily, Joe’s got an S6 and he wasn’t super intent on playing alone, so we made an account with my Gmail and decided to share the Pokémon-catching responsibilities.

 Pokémon Go

When you catch (or hatch) yet another Pidgey.

It didn’t take long to learn that Pidgeys are everywhere. Of course, we started evolving and powering up one of our Pidgeys with the “Pidgey Candy” earned from the others. But how are we supposed to catch ’em all when all we can find are Pidgeys? (And yes, someone has [essentially] caught them all. Something tells me he’s a little more dedicated than we are.)

When you hurt yourself because you’re staring at your phone.

There have been some really horrible injuries and situations caused by Pokémon Go. Luckily, I’ve managed to avoid any danger, and I want to encourage people to be safe, look up, and be aware.

Psst: The battery saver mode of Pokémon Go can help you stay alert while you play! It dims your screen when you lower your phone, but keeps the app on so it will still buzz to notify you of nearby Pokémon. Though you should use these tips to avoid any glitches while using the mode.

When the game glitches.

Here are some of the glitches I’ve experienced so far:

  • The images of Pokémon disappearing in combat so I can’t hit them with Pokéballs
  • Pokéballs freezing on screen without letting you exit combat
  • The GPS going crazy, thinking I’m running around a huge area when I’m sitting still and tilting my phone
  • Screen freeze

And on it goes. I’m hoping Niantic can work out the kinks before the fad dies down!

When you use up all of your data.

Pokémon Go is a data-heavy game. And last night, Joe and I hit 95% of his monthly data, which won’t reset until the end of the month. Thanks to No Buy July, we will not be purchasing any additional data to facilitate our Pokémon obsession. Looks like we’ll have to take a break from Pokéwalks for a while.

When you smile and wave at someone else playing Pokémon Go on the street (as everyone tends to do) — except they’re just using their phone like a normal person and now you look nuts.


In spite of its problems, Pokémon Go is probably one of the most hilarious pop culture events I’ve seen. I love that it’s bringing people together, getting them outdoors, and taking complete advantage of that nostalgia factor. I can’t wait to see how far this thing goes.

Have you run into these Pokémon Go problems while trying to catch ’em all?

Todoist — My New Favourite Productivity App

Sometimes I discover something that gets me so excited that I have to share it with the world — and Todoist is one of those magical finds!

As a checklist addict, I’m always on the hunt for solid productivity tools. I love my physical Erin Condren planner, obviously, but there are limitations to the power of paper. When it comes to collaboration and recurring events, digital is the only way to go. My coworkers and I use Trello for assigning tasks and keeping track of the goals for the week, but Trello has some serious deficiencies that impact my workflow:

  • No checklists. Once you create a card (or a to-do item), it’s either there or it’s not. You can create checklists within the card, but there is no way to mark the entire card as complete. You can archive, but those closed tasks will no longer be easily accessible for historical purposes.
  • Limited nesting. In Trello, there are three tiers: lists, cards, and checklists. Beyond that, you’re SOL. And as I mentioned, they don’t all have the same functionality.
  • No recurrences. This one is a killer, especially in a department like mine, with lots of weekly or monthly tasks to remember.

The recurrences issue was what drove me to seek out a new tool for keeping track of my daily, weekly, and monthly tasks at work. (Full disclosure: This issue came to light because I forgot about a weekly action item…)

Enter Todoist.

Todoist is a checklist app for smartphone and desktop (plus a browser plugin). Side note: the Android app looks just like the Gmail app! There is a premium version, but for the sake of this review, I’ll stick to the free features (since I’m not that dedicated yet!). You can add tasks with due dates and priorities, make them recurring, and assign them to “projects”, i.e. folders. You can also add collaborators to your projects, so that your friends, family, or coworkers can view and edit your lists together. Here are some of my favourite features:

View by Project or by Upcoming Due Date

A lot of checklist apps have calendar views in addition to categorical views. I like Todoist’s approach in particular, because the by-date arrangement is still formatted like a checklist to give you that consistent experience.

Indentation: Sub-Projects or Sub-Tasks

At any point, you can “indent” a task or project so that it falls under the category of the one above it. And, of course, you can drag it up or down so that the item is assigned to the right parent. Parent Projects are helpful if you want to be able to view multiple lists at once, but still have them broken down by subcategory.

Todoist: Nested Checklists

Pretty neat, huh? The colours indicate priority levels, so you can sort by those as well. (Side note: this is not my real to do list…)

Recurring Tasks

Yay! There is now an easy way to set up those pesky repeated tasks, without having to select any dates by hand. You can easily set up recurrences by typing something like “Every Wednesday” or “Daily at 3pm” or even “Every 5 days starting July 5th” into the due date slot. Todoist will interpret your request accordingly. It’s actually pretty fun to test the limits of the Quick Add date selector.


Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned. But that’s okay! Todoist has a built-in Postpone function that will shift your due date either one day or a full recurrence forward. You can always change the actual due date if you prefer, but this is a nice, quick fix that doesn’t make you feel so bad about yourself when you don’t accomplish everything you hoped to!

View Completed Tasks

This feature is pretty simple and neat. At the bottom of any project list, you can click a button to display all completed tasks. Plus, you can then uncheck them if you want to revive them on your checklist.

Now, of course, no app is perfect. But given the way I work and the features Todoist has, it’s a definite improvement over my previous system, or no system at all!

In short, I would definitely recommend you give Todoist a try at work, home, or both!

What are your favourite apps for getting things done?

Outlook Like a Boss — 3 Simple Tips

Before I started working full-time in a corporate office, I was a Gmail evangelist. I loved its storage space, its customization, and how easily it integrated with Google Drive, Maps, Calendar, and everything else Google does for me on a daily basis. At work, though, we only use Microsoft Outlook for our email. Bummer!

But for those of you out there (ahem, Millennials) that are being forced to use Outlook for the first time in their real-world jobs (or anyone simply looking for help with Outlook), fear not! I have some tips to help you save time, get organized, and maybe even like Outlook for once!

I’m writing step-by-step instructions for Office 2013. They may not apply exactly to other versions of Outlook.

Schedule Emails with Delayed Delivery

Sometimes you want to get ahead of the game with your emails, but for some reason or another, you don’t really want to send that message just yet. For example, if it’s a Friday at 5:30pm and you know your recipient won’t open the email until Monday morning, sending the email now will only get it buried at the bottom of their weekend-email inbox. Instead, why not schedule the email you wrote to send on Monday morning at 8am?

How to do it:

  1. Click the Pop-Out button to open the email in a new window (if you haven’t already).
  2. Select the Options tab.
  3. Click Delay Delivery.
  4. Under Delivery Options, check the “Do not deliver before” box, and fill in the date and time you’d like your email delivered.
  5. Click Close.
  6. Send your email!

 Outlook Delayed Delivery

Caveat: the timestamp on the email will still be the time at which you clicked “send”, not the delivery time. If, for some reason, you don’t want the recipient to know the actual time you wrote the email, don’t use this method. Set a reminder for yourself instead!

Use Outlook Conversations

Most people, I find, consider and display their emails in order of date and time. But when you have a million complex things on the go, is that really the best way? I made the switch to Conversations, an email arrangement in Outlook, a few months ago, and I’m definitely never going back. Here’s what it looks like:

 Outlook Conversations arrangement

The unopened email is titled with a list of the most recent senders, and the subject line of the parent email. If you click the little arrow or press the right arrow key, a list appears below of all emails in that thread that are in the current Outlook folder. (If there is no arrow, that means that the original email has had no replies.) And if you click it again, it opens the full list of emails in the thread from all of your folders, including the Sent folder. Emails from a different folder will be greyed out That’s my favourite feature — now I don’t need to go hunting in the Sent folder for something I said weeks ago, since I can find relevant emails straight from my inbox!

How to do it:

  1. Select the View tab.
  2. Check the “Show as Conversations” box.
  3. Choose whether you’d like the arrangement to apply to this folder, or all of your folders. (I recommend all of them!)
  4. (Optional — I don’t use these) Click Conversation Settings, then Use Classic Indented View or Always Expand Selected Conversation.

Caveat: If you receive multiple replies to the same email thread before checking your inbox, you may not realize there are older messages to read. If that’s a concern for you, use the “Always Expand Selected Conversation” option mentioned above!

Folders and Filters

Please use folders. It drives me crazy to see inboxes full of emails about all sorts of things, and no folders to put them all away! Plus, if your email policy includes something like “Delete Inbox Messages After 90 Days”, like my office, then moving your emails into folders will save them from unexpected disappearance.

If you receive regular emails that you don’t necessarily need to read, such as a daily dashboard report, it might be good for you to proactively declutter your inbox using filters. Filters send all emails that meet your set criteria into a specified folder. You will find them there if you need to refer to them later.

How to do it:

  1. Create a folder to which emails will automatically be sent.
  2. Select that folder.
  3. Select the View tab.
  4. Click View Settings.
  5. Click “Filter…”.
  6. Create whatever parameters will capture the email you want to filter for (and, hopefully, nothing else). See below for an example.
  7. Accept and Close the popups.

 Outlook Folder Filter Setup

I hope these tips can help you make the most of Outlook at work!

What are your tips for using Outlook like a boss?

I could have accomplished a lot of things this weekend. Granted, I made time for gardening, a hike, and folding some laundry, but the majority of my time was spent playing a video game called Banished. It’s a simple city-building and resource management simulation game that I purchased off Steam just this weekend, but I’ve played many hours of the game using friends’ accounts in the past. I figured it was time to cough up the cash and give the game a legitimate play. And, as I expected, I got sucked right back in.

What is Banished?

The premise of the game is that you must take care of a group of people that have been “banished” from their home, and are now living on the land.

Banished: Starting Out

Those icons mean your citizens are homeless! Oh no!

You can have them construct their homes, work specific jobs, gather resources, and build their families. Over time, your town will expand and develop.

Banished: Building My City

This is a view of the current state of my city. Lots of hustle and bustle!

Your town can partake in trade, animal husbandry, immigration, and mining, for example. You may even have to face some natural disasters, such as tornadoes, fire, infestations, and plague. There isn’t a specific “story mode” to the game, per se, but there’s still lots to do.

Why am I hooked?

I mentioned in an earlier post (about The Sims) that I love so-called “God Games”. I love to build up resources and watch my city (or my Sim) thrive. However, I don’t go crazy and I like to be quite realistic in games like this one. I’m a fairly cautious player, so I don’t like to expand my towns too quickly, and I get extremely attached to the citizens and the town as a whole. That means that I’m totally devastated when a tornado rips through half of my downtown core. It also means I like to follow specific citizens around and see how they live and work.

 Banished: The Marketplace

As a side note, it’s always pretty funny to “follow” the hunter characters as they search the forest for simulated deer. For some reason, they are terrible at their jobs and will walk right past (and sometimes through) deer without noticing them…

The soundtrack is also catchy, in a old-timey, wilderness-y, calming sort of way. Watch the trailer below to see what I mean (especially in the second half):

For those of you needing more motivation to play a simulation game like Banished, Steam also has 36 badges to award for various play styles that range in difficulty. I’ve only earned two so far, but I can definitely earn more with the town I’m working on now!

If this game sounds appealing to you, hop on over to Steam or Shining Rock Software and try it for yourself! (It costs around $20, depending on your currency of choice.) Once you’ve had a chance to play, let me know what you think in the comments below!

Thanks for indulging my video game obsession 🙂 Have a lovely week!

Fantastic Commas and Where to Use Them

I love commas. I truly believe that they can greatly improve clarity in writing of all kinds, and I cringe at missed commas on a daily basis. While it’s true that commas can be misused, I think many people are so afraid of run-on sentences that they abandon sentence structure altogether. But, honestly, what’s the point of writing if your language has no natural cadence? In the interest of bringing the joy of the comma to all of my readers, I would like to share some advice on comma use that you can employ in essays, in emails, or even in text messages. These tips specifically refer to grammatical situations I seem to encounter all the time. Grab a cup of tea and take notes!

Before a Conjunction that Begins a New Phrase

Consider the following:

I would love to help you but I can’t do it today.

I would love to help you, but I can’t do it today.

Are either of these examples incorrect? Technically, no, but one of them would be much clearer when skimmed through in the body of an email, and that’s the one with the comma. The comma in this case helps suggest a slight pause or breath in the sentence where it may not otherwise be assumed. It’s super helpful when you’re trying to get your point across.

Lists (i.e. Oxford Commas)

I’ve discussed the Oxford Comma before on this blog, but it’s still a point of contention for me. For the uninitiated, the Oxford Comma is the comma between the last two items in a list:

I need to buy peas, lettuce, and pickles.

The commonly-taught rule is that in a short list like the above, you don’t need the red Oxford Comma, but I and others disagree in many cases. For a very clear example to explain why this is the case, check out the graphic in the other post on this topic (click here for that).

Sentential Adverbs

I had to look up the name of this particular grammatical construct, but once I explain it, you’ll know what I mean. A sentential adverb is one that modifies the entire sentence, not just a particular noun. In this case, I’m talking about the ones that appear at the beginning of a sentence. For example:

Obviously, I believe commas are fantastic.

“Obviously” is the sentential adverb here. Because it can be removed from the sentence without consequence to its grammatical structure, it needs a comma immediately following it. Otherwise, it may distort or obstruct the meaning of the sentence. An example without a comma is as follows:

However she thinks this sentence is confusing.

The lack of comma here makes it look like the “however” is referring to “she” or to “she thinks”, rather than the sentence as a whole. In fact, it sort of seems like this is a sentence fragment that is trying to describe the manner in which she thinks!

The moral of the story here is that you need that comma.

Asides and Other Partial Statements

My general guiding principle is that if part of a sentence could be removed without destroying the structure of the rest of the sentence, then it should probably have commas around it, where applicable. For example, consider the sentence:

I’m a nerd, to be honest, and that’s okay.

If you remove the middle fragment, the sentence still works:

I’m a nerd and that’s okay.

However, if the piece of the sentence you’re considering could be a standalone sentence itself, then this is not the place for a comma. This calls for a semicolon, or perhaps even a new sentence altogether.

I wasn’t born yesterday, I know a run-on sentence when I see one.

You can fix the above sentence in one of the following three ways:

I wasn’t born yesterday; I know a run-on sentence when I see one.

I wasn’t born yesterday. I know a run-on sentence when I see one.

I wasn’t born yesterday, so I know a run-on sentence when I see one.

The Word “Like”

Yes, I’m talking about the typical “teenage” usage of the word “like”: as a filler word, replacing “um” and “uh”, for instance.

In formal written language, this isn’t really an issue. In texts, it might pop up, but not as often — it simply adds length or emphasis to the sentence, which doesn’t lend itself to the brevity required in a text message. However, the worst offenders for this grammatical misdemeanor are casual Young Adult Fiction writers. For example:

“I was like so excited,” he said.

Ugh, stop. That makes no sense, and it drives me nuts. The word “like” here can be considered an aside, as in the previous example, so the correction would be:

“I was, like, so excited,” he said.

Notice that the commas indicate that the removal of the word “like” would not break the sentence structure. That’s much better.

I would love to get into the nitty gritty of punctuation in dialogue here, but I think this is enough for one post! Let me know if this was helpful, and if you’d like to see more!

What are your best comma tips?

(P.S. Did you get my awful Feature Image joke?)

U is for Universe

It’s been a year since I was last immersed in science and exposed to science-loving people at all times, and it has come to my attention that not everyone in the “real world” has thought as much about the universe as I have. Not only have many of my classes been focused on space science, but even the websites and resources I’ve come across over the years have deepened my knowledge of and interest in space. So, for those of you who haven’t spent years of your life studying the universe but still think it’s kinda cool, I’m sharing some of the websites that have helped me learn more about space, and even get involved in the science.

Scale: How Big is the Universe, Anyway?

A lot of people have a hard time thinking about the universe beyond our solar system. It’s easy to just say “Wow, it’s big”, but never really think about it.

Well, for starters, the observable universe is about 92 billion light-years across. And how big is a light-year? It’s the distance light can travel in one year; light travels about 300,000,000 metres in a single second, so… yeah, I definitely can’t fathom that size.

Rather than giving up, try checking out the flash site, The Scale of the Universe. It allows you to zoom in and out, from the Planck length (about 0.000000000000000000000000000000000001ish metres), up to the size of an average human, all the way up to the size of the observable universe (about 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 metres). It will give you a little taste of how big the universe really is, but actually with some context.

Space as a Canvas: Astrophotography

I’ve mentioned APOD, or Astronomy Picture of the Day, in a previous post. If you like space because it’s pretty (and it makes for a really impressive Pinterest board, tbh), this is definitely a site you’ll want to bookmark. And you might learn a thing or two from the descriptions on the photos, too!

Zooniverse Space Projects: Crowdfunded Astronomy

I’ll just take the summary of Zooniverse from their website, so they can explain for themselves why it’s so cool:

“The Zooniverse is the world’s largest and most popular platform for people-powered research. This research is made possible by volunteers—hundreds of thousands of people around the world who come together to assist professional researchers. Our goal is to enable research that would not be possible, or practical, otherwise. Zooniverse research results in new discoveries, datasets useful to the wider research community, and many publications.”

This is an opportunity for anyone — yes, literally anyone — to participate in science research in a gamified environment. My favourite Zooniverse projects are Planet Hunters, in which you help find planets around other stars as seen by the Kepler Space Telescope, and Galaxy Zoo, in which you help classify galaxies that have just been discovered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

We live in a really cool time in history. Not only are we discovering new planets, stars, and galaxies, but some of the people helping to make those discoveries are non-scientists sitting at home in their PJs!

I hope you enjoy learning more about our universe from these sites, and others! Do you have any resources to share?

 U is for Universe — Milky Way