Friday, December 19, 2014

Talking about Voice -- Read Strong Literary Voices in "The Catcher in the Rye," by JD Salinger, and "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson.

Last week's post was about voice, and told you that before you write anything, you need to consider your writing voice.

If you're writing fiction, your voice will vary depending on who your narrator is.  In "The Catcher in the Rye," a very famous novel by JD Salinger, the narrator is the protagonist, a teenager who keeps getting kicked out of expensive private schools because he's not a very good student.  This novel was written in 1945, so Holden, our narrator, talks a bit funny, using words like "crummy" and "lousy."  But when you read it, you can clearly hear his voice in your head:

IF YOU REALLY want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They're quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They're nice and all ― I'm not saying that ― but they're also touchy as hell. Besides, I'm not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. I'll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy. I mean that's all I told D.B. about, and he's my brother and all. He's in Hollywood. That isn't too far from this crumby place, and he comes over and visits me practically every week end. He's going to drive me home when I go home next month maybe. He just got a Jaguar. One of those little English jobs that can do around two hundred miles an hour. It cost him damn near four thousand bucks. He's got a lot of dough, now. He didn't use to. He used to be just a regular writer, when he was home. He wrote this terrific book of short stories, The Secret Goldfish, in case you never heard of him. The best one in it was "The Secret Goldfish." It was about this little kid that wouldn't let anybody look at his goldfish because he'd bought it with his own money. It killed me. Now he's out in Hollywood, D.B., being a prostitute. If there's one thing I hate, it's the movies. Don't even mention them to me.

In non-fiction, you will still have a voice.  A good, strong voice is what the reader hears in his/her head while reading your work.  That's why non-fiction like Bill Bryson is more fun to read than non-fiction like your average grade-twelve text book: Bill Bryson has an engaging voice and when you read it, you can hear him in your head, talking to you about space and the history of the world and William Shakespeare and exciting stuff like that:

Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn't easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize.

To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It's an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally underappreciated state known as existence.

Why atoms take this trouble is a bit of a puzzle. Being you is not a gratifying experience at the atomic level. For all their devoted attention, your atoms don't actually care about you—indeed, don't even know that you are there. They don't even know that they are there. They are mindless particles, after all, and not even themselves alive. (It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.) Yet somehow for the period of your existence they will answer to a single overarching impulse: to keep you you.

The bad news is that atoms are fickle and their time of devotion is fleeting—fleeting indeed. Even a long human life adds up to only about 650,000 hours. And when that modest milestone flashes past, or at some other point thereabouts, for reasons unknown your atoms will shut you down, silently disassemble, and go off to be other things. And that's it for you.

See how wonderful it is to read a book that talks to you with its own voice.  Unfortunately, neither of these books are in the public domain, so are not available for free download on Nerdvark's favourite website,, but I'm fairly certain you can buy them on Amazon or something.

Nerdvark wants to develop his voice by writing from the point of view of his pal, Nardvark.  In order to do that, Nerdvark decides to use simple sentences, crap vocabulary, and idiotic topics:

Mmm, pizza -- just the deliciousest dang food in the world today.  The most bestest thing about pizza is how you can put anything, yes, anything you want to eat on a pizza and it will still be pizza.  Just as a ferinstance, yesterday for brekkie I went into the kitchen, got out some of the-day-before-yesterday's leftover pizza, slathered it with nommy peanut butter and mayonnaise and sprinkled on capers, Sour Skittles, and slivered almonds, and voila, new, improved, perfect pizza for me!

Thanks for reading.  Please check back next time for some IGCSE stuff that might help all you IGCSE students out there.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Writing Lessons for Students: Part One -- Pre-Writing Episode 6: Your Voice

One thing IB, AS, and IGCSE English examiners, as well as other examiners and teachers throughout the world, are going to mark you on is VOICE.  Your voice must be consistent and appropriate for your writing form.  
Nardvark is working on his voice.

Basically, your writing voice is what readers hear in their heads when reading your work.  Is your voice slow or fast paced?  Intelligent or dopey?  Educated or hick?  Mature or childish?  It may be any combination of anywhere on these and other continuums, but it must be consistent.  In other words, if your essay starts out using an academic voice, it must continue using an academic voice until the very last word.  Don't end an academic essay on the history of bread baking techniques in ancient Egypt with a line like "My favourite kind of bread is banana-raisin-nut loaf!  What's yours?"

Here are two sample paragraphs with the same topic, but one written by Nardvark and the other written by his nerdy alter-ego, the Nerdvark.  You can see the differences in their two voices:

Nerdvark writes:

Nerdvark's paragraph on cats.

Nardvark writes:

Nardvark's paragraph on cats
Obviously, these two paragraphs also have different registers -- Nerdvark's is more formal and impersonal, while Nardvark's is very informal and personal.  But you can also hear the different voices these two writers use and notice that their voices are consistent.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Writing Lessons for Students: Part One -- Pre-Writing Episode 5: Your Audience

Whenever Nardvark gets a new writing assignment, he feels like he's writing a personal letter to his teacher, because he knows that his teacher is the only person who will ever read it.

But if you think about the potential audience for anything you write, it will help you choose the best register and voice.

REGISTER = level of formality

Letters are a good place to think about register.  If you are writing a text message to your BFF, you will likely use the lowest possible register: 

Nardvark's text message to his alter-ego, the Nerdvark

Of course, if you are a nerd like Nerdvark, you will use a more formal register in your text messaging:

Nerdvark's text message is more formal.

A message to your mother on the fridge would be in a slightly more formal register:

Nardvark's fridge note

A thank-you letter that you're forced to write to Nana after every birthday and Christmas would be in a slightly more formal register:

Nardvark's letter to Gramma

A letter to a business or company would be of a high level of formality, because writing in more formal tone makes you sound educated and sophisticated, and is more likely to get you the attention you want from your audience.

Nard's letter to Krap Foods (written with the assistance of Nerdvark to achieve the appropriate register)

Whatever assignment your teacher gives you, consider who, in real life, would be reading it -- your audience -- so you can choose the best register to use.

Come back next time to learn more about VOICE.  Thanks for reading!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Writing Lessons for Students: Part One -- Pre-Writing Episode 4: Your Writing Purpose Techniques Continued


Remember, to achieve these purposes you need to give more details.

You might INFORM someone (perhaps your teacher, or your avid blog fans) about some new information or research results you have recently learned.

To INFORM, you must
  • Write clearly and distinctly.
  • Address the reader directly.
  • Plan a logical order for your ideas.
  • Write well-structured paragraphs (i.e. PEE) and link paragraphs together (Okay, okay, make that PEEL)

You  might EXPLAIN some new concept or idea or plan to your readers.  You'd find some writing like this on websites like ""

To EXPLAIN, you must:
  • Write clearly and distinctly.
  • Show or demonstrate.
  • Develop detail to support your points.
  • Use examples to illustrate your points.
  • Pay attention to order -- step-by-step is usually logical.
  • Arrange paragraphs sensibly.

You might DESCRIBE something really interesting to someone who is not familiar with it.  DESCRIBE is one of the typical purposes on the IGCSE exams.  Read Nerdvark's descriptive writing here.

To DESCRIBE, remember you are not writing a story, but you could imagine you are writing a descriptive passage from a longer story if it makes it easier. 
Imagine you are sitting in one location and observing everything that goes on around you for a limited period of time, or walking slowly through and observing everything that you pass.

Use imagery, which can include vivid verbs and adjectives, and original figurative language

Pay attention to all five senses.  What can you see? Hear? Smell? Feel? Taste?

Click here to read some really descriptive passages on litter boxes and other topics of interest to cats


These are harder because they require higher-level thinking skills, such as analytic thinking (obviously!), and evaluation.

You are often asked to ANALYZE on a long-answer test.  Analyze the character of Huck Finn.  Analyze the relationship between Othello and Desdemona.  Analyze the writer's use of diction to create atmosphere.  Analyze the structure of DNA.

To ANALYZE, think in terms of how? why? what is the effect?

  • Usually use the present tense, unless analyzing an author's technique
  • Usually third person, as this is more academic and less personal
  • Use evaluative vocabulary: This character is 'involving'; this story is 'engaging'

You may get more personal when you COMMENT.  This is your reaction or response to something. Many blogs are the writer's reaction or commentary on their life and experiences.  Check out the most popular blog in the world today, The Huffington Post.  

To COMMENT, you should give some background information followed by your own opinion.
  • Use some of the same techniques as for "REVIEW" (next)
  • Include your judgment -- effective or not and why?
  • May use phrases like "I expected" or "I was disappointed" or "It impressed me that..."

Finally, you REVIEW to share your opinion about something someone else has produced, such as a movie, book, song, album, video game, app, etc.

To REVIEW, you should show the strengths and weaknesses of something.   Your opinion, if well backed up, could help others make a decision.  This might be a good career for you if you enjoy, for example, playing video games and writing.  Just look at all the review websites out there, such as PC Gamer, which just happens to be Nardvark's favourite.

If you're more of a movie buff, read Kitty Meowvie Reviews on the Spot the Kitty blog!

Again, you're using higher-level thinking skills: analyze, give evidence, judge.

  • Pros use third person.  It is less personal.  Nobody cares what Nardvark thinks, but if he writes something that appears to apply to everyone, they might listen.
  • Use valid connectives to show how your ideas connect together: "as a result; however; consequently; therefore; although"
  • We review things that can be read/played/watched/done again and again, so usually use present tense.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Writing Lessons for Students: Part One -- Pre-Writing Episode 3: Your Writing Purpose Techniques

In the last post, Nardvark was considering various writing purposes.  Now, he needs to learn the specific techniques to use for each purpose.

Nerdvark is always happy to help, if it means he gets to make fun of Nardvark in a constructive way.


Remember, these are your purposes for fiction writing, or creative writing, as teachers like to call it.  You are IMAGINING a world, characters, situations; you are EXPLORING an idea, theme, or feeling; you are ENTERTAINING your readers or audience.

How do you do that?  If you write a story, whether it is in the form of a narrative, poem, song, or script, you need to include story elements:
-Characters, specifically a protagonist and possibly also an antagonist
-A problem for the protagonist to solve
-A setting - when and where
-A plot - inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution
-Usually in past tense
-Usually first person or third person - be consistent
-Atmosphere - pay attention to word choices
-Vary sentence structure to keep it interesting

For an example of an exciting adventure story written by Nardvark that exemplifies all of the above, click here.

Whether you are writing a story or exploring an idea, theme, or feeling through a poem or song, you need to make it deep by using lots of imagery, metaphor, symbolism, hyperbole, etc, and make it sound cool by using lots of alliteration, onomatopoeia, perhaps rhythm, rhyme, assonance, and so on.  These are all literary techniques.  For an example of a very literary poem written by Nerdvark to explore his pal Nardvark's various character traits, click here.

The Nardvark uses persuasive techniques to promote his new country, Banana Nation.  Come one, come all!
When you write to ARGUE a point, you are trying to make your audience agree with you.
-Make at least three distinct points
-Write a separate paragraph for each point
-Show possible counter-arguments and refute them
-Use examples, facts, statistics to support your points
-Use rhetorical questions, quotes, anecdotes to hook your audience

When you write to PERSUADE, you are trying to make your audience do something.
-Give at least three distinct reasons
-Use persuasive language including emotive vocabulary and imperative sentences
-Use shock or humour to emphasize a point
-Use persuasive techniques such as rhetorical question, triples, repetition, alliteration/assonance
-Use personal pronouns to involve audience

When you write to ADVISE, you are telling your audience how to do something.
-Reassure or challenge your reader
-Use imperatives
-Use modals 
-Make it clear with subheadings, bullet points, diagrams

Look at any advertisement for examples of persuasive writing.  Nerdvark gives the following example:

Save the Nardvark!
There is only one Nardvark in the world; if it dies, its species will be extinct.
What do you need to do to save him?
Nardvark is not a good hunter or scavenger, so he needs your donations.
Nardvark will eat anything, so whatever you donate will go on his pizza.  Donate tinned food, condiments, expired dairy products, old shoes and boots -- he appreciates and eats it all.

Can you find all the persuasive techniques used above?
-shock value
-rhetorical question
-personal pronouns
-emotive language

Check back next time for techniques for the other six writing purposes.  For now, Nardvark wants to ride a porpoise (ooh, wordplay!) and play his favourite online video game, Spot the Kitty!

Thanks for reading.  If you find my posts helpful, please help out by donating to our kickstarter campaign, buying Nardvark's products, or simply visiting my writer website.  

Monday, October 20, 2014

Writing Lessons for Students: Part One -- Pre-Writing Episode 2: Your Writing Purpose

You are still on step one of the writing processthinking about what you will write, and you need to now consider your writing purpose before you can decide on such important things as what form or structure to follow.

Nerdvark thinks his writing purpose is "to get a high mark in English."  Nerdvark, who always does get a high mark in English, divides writing purposes into four sections.

The first is writing to IMAGINE -- EXPLORE -- ENTERTAIN.  

These purposes apply to fiction.  Fiction writing includes the narrative story, poem, song, dramatic script, and descriptive pose.  For the IGCSE or A-levels, you will need to write a narrative or descriptive piece.  It is important to keep in mind that your purpose in narrative writing is to imagine something and share the images with the reader, to explore an idea, and/or to entertain your reader.

Next, you might be writing about your opinion or point of view.  Then your purpose is to ARGUE -- PERSUADE -- ADVISE.

There are some important techniques to keep in mind for these purposes.  For example, if you are arguing your opinion, you need to discuss the opposing opinion and disprove it or show why it is flawed as well as show your opinion and its strengths.  This technique is called "counter-argument".  If you are writing to persuade, you will want to be familiar with such techniques as "the rule of three," rhetorical questions, shock value, humour, and use of personal pronouns to involve the reader.

Third, if you are writing to give more details about a subject, your purpose is to INFORM -- EXPLAIN -- DESCRIBE.

This might be for a how-to manual, a pamphlet, or in the IGCSEs and AS exams, descriptive writing.  The goal here is to give a lot of details.  For instance, in descriptive writing, you need to write a lot of imagery, thinking about the five senses.

Fourth and finally, if you are being asked to respond to something, your purpose is to ANALYZE -- COMMENT -- REVIEW.  

In this case, you might have an article to read and comment on, or you might be asked to do a review of a book, movie, video game, etc.  In IB, you need to be able to write a commentary on a piece of prose or poetry.  Some English exams ask you to analyze a specific aspect of the text given, such as language, word choice, structure, etc.

Once you have figured out what your writing purpose is, it will be easier for you to go to the next step of the writing process, which is to plan your writing.  For example, if your purpose is to entertain, then you might choose to write a narrative story, whereas if your purpose is to persuade, you may decide to follow a structured five-paragraph essay or perhaps write a speech, and use lots of persuasive writing techniques.  

Alternately, perhaps your teacher or exam has given you a format or question.  If you think carefully about the purpose that is being asked, it will help you decide what style and techniques you need to use to achieve that purpose.  Look for purpose words in any assignment or exam question, such as "describe" or "comment" and think about what techniques you need to employ for that purpose before you go on to plan your writing.

For more about the techniques for specific purposes, please check back next week!  For now, Nardvark's purpose is to eat banana-peanut-butter pizza and marathon "Breaking Bad."

Friday, October 10, 2014

Writing Lessons for Students: Part One -- Pre-writing

It has been a while since we talked about the writing process on this blog, and it is getting to be that time of the school year where teachers are starting to give writing assignments, even perhaps in the major-writing-assignment category.

As we all know, the first step in the writing process is "Pre-writing," or, as Nardvark prefers to think of it, "thinking."  A lot of students make the mistake of tackling a writing assignment without really thinking about what they are being asked to do, and the result is writing that is all wrong.  That's why all good writers spend some time thinking before they write anything.

But what do they think about?  Lunch?  Their significant other?  Who they can persuade/bribe/trick into doing their writing assignment for them?  Well, hopefully not. 
Nardvark keeps a notebook of inspiration for writing ideas.

When you are given a writing assignment or even a written question on a test, you need to think about specific things before you can even begin to start planning your work.  You need to think about such things as:
  • main idea
  • purpose
  • form
  • audience

just to get you started.  Today's blog is focusing on "main idea."  Come back next weekend to find out how to think about your "purpose."

Main idea, otherwise known as "central idea" or "topic," should be able to fit in one sentence.  It is not a word or phrase; that would be your theme, such as "love" or "friendship" or "war."  If you already have a theme, you can build your main idea around it.  If your teacher has assigned you a question, you will be able to write your main idea easily -- it is your answer to the question

As you mull over your main idea, you need to think about some of the other things listed above.  For example, your teacher might have told you what form you have to write in.  

If you are writing an essay or research paper, your main idea can be built up into a thesis statement.  If you are writing something more aesthetic like descriptive prose, a memoir, a narrative or story, a poem, or a song, you need to decide on your main idea before you can go any further.  For a narrative, such as a story or ballad, your main idea would be your logline, or the sentence you might see on a movie poster that urges you to watch the movie: "One last mission.  One man, one drug dealer -- it's war!"  This tells us just enough to build a story on. 

Sometimes you have a writing assignment and you just don't know what to write about.  It's not fair.  You're not an idea machine that can be just switched on and off at your teacher's whim!  That's another reason we need to have some "pre-writing" tricks.  There are ways to come up with ideas for any writing assignment situation.

If you are assigned a pragmatic text, such as an essay, you have probably been doing some kind of reading leading up to it.  This is English class, after all.  There is nothing wrong with using the ideas in your reading to base your writing on; in fact, teachers love it when you do that.  If your teacher asks you to do a compare and contrast essay, for example, and you have been reading poetry in class, you can compare and contrast the styles of two poets.

All good writers keep diaries which they can draw ideas from.  If your teacher asks you to write a pragmatic text but does not give you an exact question, you should start by writing your response to the things you are studying in class, English class and other classes.  Maybe something from your history class will interest you enough to write a research essay about it, or maybe something in your Biology class will inspire you to write an opinion essay about bioethics.  So every day, jot down your thoughts in response to your classes, and you will have plenty of ideas to draw from when essay time comes.

If you are assigned creative writing, you can draw on any of your experiences -- stuff you learn about in class, a comic you read, movie or show you watch, things your talk about with your friends (not the dirty stuff!), things you see or hear when you're out and about.  If you have a crappy memory like the Nardvark, you should definitely keep a small journal or diary and note down these experiences and your reactions to them or thoughts about them.  Then every time your teacher asks you to write something, you will have plenty of ideas to start with.

But chances are you have to write something right now, and you have not been keeping a diary and can't remember what you had for breakfast let alone what your reaction was to the last movie you watched.  So in this case, you need to do some actual pre-writing exercises.

Pre-Writing Exercises: 

One is brainstorming.  Think of an experience you had recently.  Write down all the ideas and thoughts that you can in response to it.  Just a list of words and phrases should do it.  Then look at your list, and use the process of elimination to select your main idea.

Another is free-writing.  This means you just start writing and see what happens.  Maybe if you start writing down the lyrics to a song you listen to a lot, an idea will spring out of it.  If you start writing a letter to an imaginary friend or a one-time-only diary entry, chances are, some great idea will be in there somewhere.  Your head is filled with ideas; you have them when you're showering or falling asleep, but you can tap your brain and get the ideas out any time by doing free-writing. 

Of course, the worst writing task of all, and perhaps the easiest to screw up, is the essay test.  This requires pre-writing as well.  You will need to examine the question very carefully, or you may end up writing an excellent, grammatically-correct, heart-rending essay on the wrong topic.  Use the following steps to make sure you know exactly what to write before you write anything:

1. Highlight question words -- words such as summarize, explain, analyze, compare, contrast, suggest, and so on each ask you to do a specific task.  Make sure you know what the question is asking you to do.

2. Underline details -- essay test questions often ask you to refer to a specific text or even a specific part of a text, discuss a specific character, theme, topic, etc.  Sometimes they ask you to talk about the writing.  Look for the word "language," "words," or "author."  For example, "Analyze how the language used conveys a sense of urgency..."   In this question, we know we have to look at the author's word choices and literary techniques used.

3. Circle the small words -- they are easy to overlook, but sometimes a small word can trip you up.  Are you supposed to discuss Romeo and Juliet, or Romeo or Juliet?  Are there two parts to the question, or did the teacher give you a choice?

After spending a few minutes reading and thinking about the question, you will be able to form the main idea, which is essentially the answer to the question, for your essay.

Once you have your main idea, you need to think about your writing purpose.  This will help you choose your form and style.  Come back next weekend for more about writing purpose.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Grammar Nazi Count-Down: Episode 10 -- Punctuation

Punctuation makes your words and sentences easier to understand.  Nerdvark spends a lot of time playing MMPORPGs and reading online gaming forums, but every time he encounters lack of punctuation his hair follicles bleed.  This is not such a big deal, since he is a fictional character living in a fictional mirror, but as you can imagine, it can be quite frustrating for the Nerdvark.

Here is a well-known example where punctuation can make a big difference to meaning:

gramma said lets eat kids


Gramma said, "Let's eat, kids!"

The second example is punctuated, making it more clear.  The comma after eat shows us that Gramma is addressing the kids when she says "Let's eat."  Meanwhile, the lack of comma in the un-punctuated example leads us to believe that Gramma is a psychotic cannibal with a taste for the soft, tender flesh of young children.

When posting to forums, captioning your IG shots, updating your status, tweeting, etc, correct use of punctuation will help your readers to know what you're trying to say.  It will also make life a lot easier for the poor sensitive Nerdvark.  Fight Nerdvark cruelty -- use punctuation!

Absence of  punctuation makes Nerdvark's hair follicles bleed.
For more on Grammar Nazi-ism, check out Nerdvark's new favourite-ever song, "Word Crimes" by Weird Al Yankovic.  But BE CAREFUL if you're easily offended, because that nasty Weird Al does use what might be considered a derogatory term in the song.  So, look out.  

Meanwhile, if you want to learn all the ins and outs of punctuation, there is a crash-course on punctuating here at Purdue OWL (and it is very politically correct and not offensive to anyone, I hope.)

Click here if you want to learn more about word crimes, and some other stuff, in an interesting Time Magazine article on the subject.

Thanks for reading, and if you enjoy The Nardvark please support me by checking out my website or purchasing my new merchandise so I can quit my welding job and become a Nerdvark full-time.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Grammar-Nazi Count-Down Episode 9: it's vs. its

This is another homonym, but the confusion lies not in the spelling but in the apostrophe, which brings us to the question: is this a grammar post or a punctuation post?

The solution to the its-it's conundrum is easy:

ITS is a possessive pronoun.  It goes with his, her, my, your, and their.  If you can replace its in your sentence with any other possessive pronoun, stick with its.  

Read this example:

Nerdvark's handsomest feature is his nose.  Its sheer magnitude is enough to impress anyone, but put that together with its glorious sheen and silken hairy covering, and you know you're looking at the world's most extraordinary proboscis.
Nardvark is proud of his prominent proboscis.

If Nerdvark's nose was a thinking being, you would see that second sentence written thus:

His sheer magnitude is enough to impress anyone, but put that together with his glorious sheen and silken hairy covering, and you know you're looking at the world's most extraordinary proboscis.
He is a fantastic nose.

From this example, you can see how its functions as a possessive pronoun.  The sheer magnitude, glorious sheen, and silken hairy covering all belong to (or describe) the nose.

For more on possessive pronouns, check out The OWL.

Squash together it is to get it's.
IT'S, on the other hand, is an abbreviation.   It actually consists of two words shoved together so hard that one letter has flown out and been replaced by an apostrophe.  Other words in this situation include isn't, don't, what's, you're, and how's.  

An easy way to figure out if it's belongs in your sentence is to grab it by both ends and stretch it back out to its original two words, 'it' and 'is.'  If it is fits in your sentence, then you can use it's.
Stretch out it's to get it is.

Here's an example, again using Nerdvark's nose:

Nerdvark's nose is a delight to all who encounter it.  It's long, it's shaggy, and it's brown.  What more could one want in a snout?

After stretching out the it's, we have:

It is long, it is shaggy, and it is brown.

For more irritating homonyms like this, once again, check out The OWL.

As you can see, Nerdvark is very proud of his nasal features.  And you can be proud of your correct use of its vs it's.

Thank you for reading.  If you enjoy my blog, please recommend it on your favourite websites or check out my site,  See you next time for the last episode of the Grammar-Nazi count-down, once again featuring kittens!