A Quick Look at Udemy’s Online Video Courses

I just discovered Udemy, a site that offers online video courses on… well, almost anything.

Udemy isn’t quite like Lynda, which focuses on software skills and charges a monthly fee for access to all their learning videos. Udemy isn’t quite like Khan Academy, where free math videos are produced by one man using Microsoft Paint as his teaching tool.

Udemy courses aren’t confined to math, science, or software. You can also learn how read poetry, speak Italian, juggle, make lamp shades, or brew your own beer.

With Udemy, you purchase the courses you want and watch the videos at your leisure. Some of them are free, most of them cost anywhere from $29 to $99. (I saw a few business courses with a $500 price tag.)

Finally, Udemy appears to invite anyone to create their own online courses. I’m not sure how the approval process works, but since the video courses come from many contributors, I suspect the quality of the courses will vary. I would pay attention to the star rating and comments on the courses before blowing $99. Fortunately, Udemy offers refunds within 30 days of purchasing a course, so you can get your money back if the course was terrible.

I took a free course on typography to see how Udemy courses work (and because I could stand to learn more about typography). The instructor’s accent was a little hard to understand, but the course was interesting and instructive. It wasn’t one big video, but a series of bite-sized videos that were each a few minutes long. Some videos came with PDF handouts that show the anatomy of letter-forms or explain the differences between serif and san serif font families. The course also had a few quizzes to test you on your newly acquired knowledge on typography.

I’ll be keeping an eye out for more interesting courses on Udemy.

Ruthless Editing: Omit Needless Words!

When I edit articles for the school newspaper, I do more cutting than anything else. I try to follow Rule 17 in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style:

“Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

If I see a sentence or paragraph that seems awkward or confusing, the first question I ask myself is whether I can safely remove it. Cutting out writing that doesn’t quite work might be ruthless, but it saves time, and it’s less risky. The more I have to edit a piece of writing, the more it starts to sound like someone else wrote it.

Writing Tip: How to Write Dialogue that Sounds “Real”

Rabbit with Pencil (from clker.com)Want to write bad dialogue for your characters? Make them say things that no one would say in real life.

Someone living in the present day probably wouldn’t say something like this: “Mary, I was so very distraught by your hasty departure last night. I realize that you have recently been accepted for a corporate job with demanding hours, but I think you could be more considerate of my feelings.”

Most people are not going to be this formal and string together words like “distraught” and “hasty departure.” If you’re intentionally writing a character who has a stilted way of speaking, maybe you can get away with something like that–but only if you make it clear that this is a quirk of his, and only if all your other characters speak naturally.

On the other hand, people living in Victorian times are not going to greet each other with, “Yo, what’s up?” You want to be reasonably familiar with the time period you’re writing in, and part of that means having a feel for the way people spoke back then. You don’t have to get everything perfect, but you’ll break the fantasy if you throw in modern slang and expressions that have no place there.

Tips for improving dialogue:

  • Try reading it out loud. Does it sound natural, or awkward?
  • Listen to the way people talk. Pay attention to rhythm, word choices, and expressions they like to use.
  • If you’re writing about people who lived in a different time period, try reading letters, diaries, or literature written in that same period.

Of Cheese and Self Discovery

Food & WineIt’s odd, but one of my favorite memories of my internship at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival in Walt Disney World was mastering the art of griddling slices of Kefalograviera cheese–a hard Greek cheese traditionally made from sheep’s milk.

The perfect griddled Kefalograviera cheese is warm, slightly gooey, and has a caramel-colored crust. You top it off with a dusting of pistachios and a drizzle of honey. If you try removing the cheese from the griddle too soon, or if you’re not careful with your spatula, you might crumple or scrape off that lovely crust.

Griddling the right number of cheese slices to match business volume is an art in itself. If there’s a long line of hungry guests, you just keep throwing those cheeses slices on the griddle–though it’s best to stagger them if you can. If business is sporadic, you can’t get away with stockpiling griddled cheese. They grow hard and cold in a few minutes, and then they have to be thrown out.

Mangled cheeses were a common sight in the Greece booth, depending on whoever was on cheese duty. Usually they were interns who wished they’d gotten dibs on chicken-grilling duty instead. We all developed our specialties; some were better at grilling lambchops, others seemed to have a magic touch with salmon or shrimp. My specialty was griddling Greek cheese. The chef called me one of the “cheese rock stars,” and I took fierce pride in it.

Although I decided against pursuing a culinary career not long after coming back home, I’ll never regret the culinary classes I took, nor would I trade away my experience as an intern in Disney World. It was one of those side-journeys that enriched my life and brought me closer to discovering who I am, and who I’m meant to be.