Easy steps to improve your writing

I just finished "Revising Prose," one of the best books I've read about improving your writing.  The author is a professor of English at UCLA who comes right out and says that academic writing encourages excessive wordiness and that clear, concise writing is the mark of good writer and thinker.  He teaches what he calls the "Paramedic Method" to improve any sentence.  Here are a few of the key points.

1.  Circle the prepositions. 

Too many prepositions take the action out of a sentence and make it unnecessarily wordy.  So circle anything like of, in, by, through, from, etc.

Removing the prepositions just makes this sentence better.

Original: "In this paragraph is an example of the use of a cliche in describing an experience." 

Revised: "This paragraph uses a cliche to describe an experience." 

2.  Circle the "Is" forms.

I never had a problem with the word "Is" until I read this book.  Now I understand that "is" and all its forms (is, was, will be, seems to be, have been, etc.) just suck the life out of a sentence.  Replace all "is" forms with action verbs, and get rid of unnecessary prepositions, and your sentence comes back to life. 

Original:  "The trend in college admissions seems to be that there is a general increase in selectivity at famous colleges."

Revised:  "Famous colleges are becoming more selective."

3.  Find the action.

The author calls this, "Ask who's kicking whom."  To revise your sentences and make them active and clear, just identify the action–ask yourself who is doing what to whom, and make that the focus of the sentence.

Original: "Attending a private college is considered too expensive by some people." 

Who is doing what to whom?  Some people are considering…  Let's revise it and focus on the action.

Revised: "Some people consider private colleges too expensive."  

4.  Make the "kicking" a simple action verb.

Original: "The need for safety schools is not satisfied in this college list."

Revised: "This college list does not satisfy the need for safety schools."

Even better revision:  "This college list needs safety schools." 

5.  Start fast. 

Every time you start a sentence with, "The point I'm trying to make is," or "What we need to focus on is," or, "My opinion is that," you're starting off a sentence too slowly.  The author calls these "slow windups." We always say that a college essay has to start with a pithy first sentence that comes right out and says something.  But that doesn't mean that other sentences should start slowly.

So when you write a sentence, start fast.  Don't do a slow windup.  Say what you want to say.

Those are just a few of his tips.  It's a great book that, somewhat frustratingly, makes me want to go back through everything I've ever written and totally revise it.

How good writing can get you dates…and get you into college

Writing a great college essay is a lot like writing a Match.com headline. 

From a great article in Fast Company:

As a dater on Match.com, you have two key ways to
communicate something quickly about yourself: a picture and a headline… Given the stakes, these headlines should really zing. They
don’t. We examined more than 1,000 Match.com ads—from men and women,
old and young. Our search yielded headlines like this one: “Hey.”
Folks, if your opening line is “Hey,” you better be hot.

Another
said “Looking for love.” Well, duh, you’re on Match.com. At least
two-thirds of the headlines said nothing—and did it poorly.

Why
do these headlines suck so much? Fear. Fear of saying too much. Fear of
saying something clever that someone might think is stupid. Fear of
saying something revealing that might turn someone off. The headlines
try desperately not to exclude anyone. In doing so, they succeed at
boring everyone.

…Some singles have figured this out. Here's a brilliant example: "Athletic math nerd seeks someone to hum the Seinfeld intro music with." While excluding, he's simultaneously becoming more interesting to potential soul mates."

If your college essay starts out with, "I have been on the basketball team for three years and it has taught me many important lessons about hard work and commitment," you might as well have just said, "Hey." 

Before you submit your college essay, translate it

A lot of the college essays admissions officers read really need to be translated.  They're technically written in English, but it's a different kind of English than most seventeen year-olds (and most adults, too) would ever use when trying to communicate with someone other than a college admissions officer.   

Here's a sample sentence, some version of which appears in thousands of college essays every fall. 

"My trip to Paris broadened my cultural horizons."

What does that actually mean?  Seriously, can you explain it?  What if the writer just wrote an honest, descriptive and punchy sentence like,

"Before my trip to Paris last summer, I wasn't exactly what you'd call a 'world traveler.'  I'd never been anywhere unless you count visiting my grandmother every summer in Bakersfield."

Now we know exactly what you're trying to say.  The translation cleared it up. 

Here's another example of a phrase admissions officers see all the time.

"I've played in the marching band for the last three years and it has taught me many important lessons about hard work and commitment."

Sure, it's technically English.  But what is this student trying to say?  That he learned hard work and commitment are important?  Did he really not know that before?  

Here's a translation:

"It's not easy to stand in the sun for three hours while holding a tuba and wearing a polyester uniform.  But that's what I've been doing after school for the last three years."

Now I get it.  And better yet, I'm interested.

I can't tell you how many times I've read a sentence like,

"In that moment, I found myself truly appreciating what it took to be a leader." 

Again, it's not that I don't understand the individual words; I just have no idea what the student means by them. 

A translation might be something like,

"About a month into my time as Senior Class President, a lot of people were mad at me. Even though I was trying my best and just wanted to make everyone happy, I learned my first leadership lesson fast–if you want the glory and fun of being in charge, you have to take the criticism when things don't go well.  It's part of the job.  It took a long time for me to get good at that part." 

Don't write a college essay that has to be translated.  Instead, translate it for your readers before you ever send it.  Here's how.

1)  Don't write like you're trying to impress someone.  This is one of those times when trying too hard is a bad thing.  If your friends would mock you for what you wrote, you might be trying too hard.  

2)  When you're revising your essay, read every sentence and ask yourself if this is something you would actually say out loud.  Imagine you were sharing your story in front of a group of adults you respected and were comfortable with.  As you read each sentence, ask yourself if you would express each thought in that way in front of the group.  If so, is what you wrote how you would say it?

3) Try to be as specific as possible.  At Collegewise, we call this "Owning your story."  To own your story means that you've written a college essay that nobody else could write.  And one of the ways you do that is to inject as much detail into your experience as you can.  Nobody can argue with the details of your story–they're yours, and as long as you follow tips #1 and #2 above, your details won't need to be translated.

             

Bad writing in business…and college essays

Here's an excerpt from Jason Fried's article in Inc. this week, "Why is Business Writing So Awful?"

When you write like everyone else and sound like everyone else and
act like everyone else, you're saying, "Our products are like everyone
else's, too." Or think of it this way: Would you go to a dinner party
and just repeat what the person to the right of you is saying all night
long? Would that be interesting to anybody? So why are so many
businesses saying the same things at the biggest party on the planet —
the marketplace?

Writing that sounds like everyone else is bad writing–in business, and in college essays. 

As Jason points out, bad business writing has phrases like, "Full-service solutions provider" and "Cost-effective end-to-end solutions" and "Provider of value-added services." 

Does any potential customer read those words and think, "Now THIS is EXACTLY what I've been looking for!!!"  No.  That writing doesn't help you understand what makes the product unique, what it can do that other products can't, or why you can trust its makers more than you can trust those at other companies.

Bad college essays have phrases like, "I gained valuable life lessons," and "I came to appreciate the value of helping others," and, "I improved my leadership qualities."  

No admissions officer will read one of those phrases and say, "FINALLY!  A kid who discovered that helping people is important!"   Those phrases aren't unique.  In fact, they're cliches.  They make you sound like every other kid who is applying.

If you don't want to sound like every other kid, don't write like every other kid.  Instead, write what you really mean.  Write it like you would say it if you really wanted to make a point.  Don't just write about things you think sound good; write what you really want to say.

Here are some examples from real Collegewise kids:

"Everything to do with horses smells bad.  They smell bad.  The saddles and blankets smell bad.  All of their shampoo and medicines smell bad.  So as a competitive rider, I pretty much stink all the time.  And it's absolutely worth it."

"Ten
minutes into my first shift as an EMT, I was in the back of a speeding ambulance doing chest compressions on
a 19
year-old motorcycle accident victim who'd just gone into full cardiac
arrest.  At some point in the next 8 hours of that shift, I was sure for
the first time in my life that I had found what I am meant to do."

"I can make a mean hamburger.  In fact, I'm a professional.  I've got four years of professional hamburger-making experience." 

You are not like every other kid.  Your experiences are not like those of other students.  Don't let bad writing kill your uniqueness. 

More on parents (not) helping with college essays

I got a few emails from parents in response to my post where I advised that they not get involved helping their kids with college essays.  Most completely agreed with me, but there were a few who swore that they helped their kids successfully (and that the acceptance letters from Princeton and Yale were proof that it worked). 

I wasn't suggesting that no parent has the knowledge or ability to help your own kid with college essays.  I was saying that it's impossible for a parent to be a completely objective reader when the subject matter is your own son or daughter.  I was saying kids are inclined to resent their parents' involvement much like they resent you telling them what not to wear or whom to date.  I was saying that it's too much pressure, for you and for your student.

The American Medical Association's Code of Medical ethics advises against doctors treating their own children for similar reasons.

"Professional objectivity may be compromised when an immediate family member or the physician is the patient; the physician’s personal feelings may unduly influence his or her professional medical judgment, thereby interfering with the care being delivered…If tensions develop in a physician’s professional relationship with a family member, perhaps as a result of a negative medical outcome, such difficulties may be carried over into the family member’s personal relationship with the physician."

I think kids should get help with their college essays.  All good writers get feedback, and re-writing is part of good writing.  Kids can ask their English teacher, counselor, or even a good friend who knows them well and will call them out for saying things like, "My trip to Europe afforded me a plethora of opportunities to broaden my cultural horizons."

But it when it comes to parents helping, it really will take pressure off if you follow my (and the AMA's) lead here.

How parents can help kids with college essays

I did a seminar about college essays at an admissions event today.  And I gave parents the advice I've given for my entire career as a college counselor about how parents can best help their kids with college essays. 

Don't get involved.  Stay away.  In fact, run the other direction. 

Parents are the worst judges of their own kids' college essays.  You are not impartial observers.  You love your kids too much, and you are way too close to the subject matter to advise your son or daughter what and how to write in their college essays.

Most kids resent their parents' involvement in the college essay anyway.  And the colleges can always tell when you got too involved.  Kids think and write differently than parents do, and you'd be surprised how obvious is it to the trained reader when too many of the ideas or the words came from Mom or Dad. 

I know what some of you are thinking.  Some of you are thinking I'm wrong.  Every time I give this advice to a crowd, there's one parent who scowls at me.  It's inevitably a parent who inserts herself into everything her kid is doing.  It's the parent who's sure that she's the exception to the rule. 

She's not.  And neither are you. 

So preserve your family relationship and the purity of the essays. 
Stay out of them.  Help with other things like planning college visits,
and filling out financial aid forms and cheering your kids on
throughout the process.  But when it comes to college essays, remove
yourself from the process.  Your kids and the colleges will thank you for it.

College essay lessons from Warren Buffett

An interesting piece, “Start-up Lessons Learned from Warren Buffett” that analyzes why Buffett’s annual letter to shareholders is an example of masterful communication.  Turns out these are great pieces of advice for writing college essays, too.

Here are the points the article raises, along with my college essay version of the advice.

1.  Converse like a real human being.

Buffett doesn’t hide behind business-speak–he just writes clearly, as if he were talking to you over lunch.  He could sound like one of the world’s foremost authorities on investment (he is), but instead just goes for a conversational tone.  That’s exactly how you should write your college essays.  No kid in the history of kid-dom has ever said to a friend, “Participating in the ASB has taught me valuable lessons about working well with others.”  Don’t hide behind college-essay-speak.  Just say it.

2. Admit mistakes and move on.

Buffett’s been wrong before. But when he makes mistakes, even big ones, he doesn’t make excuses.  He accepts responsibility and then moves on.  A lot really successful people today made dopey mistakes when they were teenagers.  If you’ve done the same, you’re in good company.  But don’t blame other people or try to explain away your failures.  Accept responsibility, learn what you can, and then move on to bigger and better things.

3.  The power of humor in business.

Buffett knows how to entertain a reader with lines like,

Charlie and I enjoy issuing Berkshire stock about as much as we relish prepping for a colonoscopy.”

You don’t necessarily have to be funny in your college essays.  But you do have to entertain your reader.  Admissions officers are tired and bored during admissions season.  You have to do your part to hold their attention.  Good writers know how to do that with lines like these, courtesy of some of our Collegewise kids.

“Even with all its problems, my car has never stalled or failed to get me where I want to go.  When I went to crash a sorority beach party with some friends, the car (thank god) made the whole trip”

“I was the only girl on the cross country team who had a 12 year-old brother at my races yelling, ‘Run faster!  You’re fat!'”

“I had a knack for business at age 10.  That’s when the snow cone empire first took off. “

Take the advice or leave it.  But remember that Buffett is worth 47 billion dollars.

 

What you can learn about college essays from Matt Damon

Bad college essays tell stories that the writer hopes will sound impressive, not stories that the student actually cares about.  They usually include sentences the writer would never say to a friend. 

What football player would ever tell a teammate, "Football has taught me important lessons about hard work and commitment"?

What kid who volunteers at a soup kitchen would ever say, "As I handed the bowl of soup to the elderly woman, I had an epiphany about the value of helping people"?

What student comes back from a trip to Europe and tells her friends, "I expanded my cultural horizons by learning to appreciate the subtle yet important differences between the French and Americans"?

Bad college essays just try too hard, not unlike how Matt Damon (who went to Harvard, by the way) describes bad acting in the first 50 seconds of this clip.

Should you take a risk in a college essay?

Students and parents ask us all the time if it's advisable to take a risk in a college essay.  Should you write about something controversial, or take on a subject that may offend the reader, or admit a mistake you made?

I usually tell students that if you're taking a risk in a college essay just to get noticed, that's probably not a good strategy.  But if you're taking a risk by telling the truth, standing up for what you believe in, or just admitting who you really are, even if it may paint you in a less than positive light, those tend to be admirable traits that colleges will appreciate.  Here's an example. 

We worked with a student last fall who had a clear, first-choice school that was a reach for him.  The school's essay question asked applicants to describe a situation in which you integrated critical thinking, intelligence, and character.  He had a great story to tell about a job interview in which he was asked if he were elected president, what would he do first to improve the economy.  He gave a thoughtful, informed answer about legalizing marijuana, and he got the job.  The interviewer even complimented him on how knowledgeable and honest he was.  

But would it be a good idea to actually admit that in his college essay?

When we talked with him about it, it was clear he was knowledgeable about the issue.  He'd read about it and even discussed it with several of his teachers.  And he wasn't even a drug user.  In fact, he also believed that as long as marijuana was illegal, people shouldn't use it.  But he had the guts to tell the truth in a job interview and it worked.  Why should he hide behind a safe answer when the truth would make for a much more interesting and compelling story?  And besides, do you have any idea how many "I chose not to cheat even though other
students did it" essays that admissions office has to read? 

So we told him to go for it.  Swing for the fences.  And today, he got his acceptance letter.

The point here is not that risky essays always win.  If you write an essay about how much you like to do drugs, that would be a stupid thing to do.

But you should still be yourself.  Have the guts to tell the truth. Don't be immature, but don't hide behind a safe answer that you don't really believe, either.

  

Costume not requiered

I remember a Collegewise student who began his college essay,

"I hate Halloween.  Actually, it's not so much the holiday I hate as it is the obligation to wear a costume.  No matter what costume I wear, I just feel like an idiot."

In three sentences, he's already accomplished three important goals for college essays.

  1. Get the reader interested right away with a pithy first sentence.
  2. Inject some of personality into the writing. 
  3. Use your story to help readers get to know you in ways the application alone would not allow. 

What do the first three sentences of your college essay say about you?

Have fun, and be safe tonight.  Happy Halloween.