What Dr. Seuss Can Teach You About Writing

Listen to the wisdom of the Cat in the Hat. Reconsider green eggs and ham. There is a lot to learn from the words of Dr. Seuss, and you’ll discover that there is a good deal of it that can apply to improving your writing.

“Today you are you, that is truer than true.
There is no one alive who is You-er than You.”

Be authentic. Write in your own true voice. Finding your own voice in writing is challenging. You don’t even know what your own voice is, exactly. But there is a way to write that is “truer than true”. The more you write, the more you will notice a pattern in your writing; a flow and ease, where it doesn’t seem so hard to say what you want to say, and when you do say it, it sounds like you. It’s natural to think that it’s better to try to mimic the books that we love and admire for how well they are written. But imitating those language choices, the sentence structure, the whatever the it is that makes it so great, can fall flat when you try to do it yourself.

On the other hand, the voice that feels most natural, the least forced, is the voice you’re likely most critical of. You fear it’s not as polished as writers you admire. And that’s probably true. But, mistakes in your own voice are actually less distracting than when you try to write in someone else’s. Your voice, as flawed as it is, will sound better with mistakes that are consistent with the overall voice. Why? It’s very hard to sustain a voice that is not your own. The language is likely to sound stilted, to have a roughness in places because the tempo is not yours. If your writing style is short pithy sentences, few metaphors and an informal voice, you can have specific sentences that don’t quite work, but are stylistically consistent. They don’t take the reader “out” of the story as much. If you try to emulate a tightly structured, heavily metaphorical style, not only will you be more likely to slip up and your natural staccato style slide in, when it does, the difference screams at us.  You can imagine how distracting that is, essentially a bumpy ride for your reader. You are better at your voice than you are at anyone else’s. So use it.

“The writer who breeds more words than he needs
is making a chore for the reader who reads.  . .”

Brevity is your friend. That doesn’t mean writing 250 words instead of 600 because you can’t think of anything to say. Think at the sentence level, not the essay level. It means, read a sentence with 23 words and see if it can’t be just as good – or even better – with 15 words.

An example:

Although I know that I have always wanted to be a writer, I am really worried that it is a career that has a lot of disappointments because your writing gets rejected a lot and you might not make much money. (41 words)

Try instead:

Though I have always wanted to be a writer, I fear the disappointment that can come with that career – rejection of your work, and not much money. (27 words)

Don’t exhaust your reader with heavy complex sentences unless you’re sure it really is necessary. Or that you’re William Faulkner.  And even he is tiring sometimes. If you really push yourself on this whole brevity thing, you will be shocked at how much tighter the language is. You might not even understand what that means, but you’ll read it back to yourself and just know it’s better. Only Billy can make a long a*s sentence actually better than a short one. And leave him be.

“The more that you read, the more things you will know.
The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

Read. And read. Also, read a lot. Stephen King said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

The best way to improve your writing is to read. (The second best is to write, which means pushing through writer’s block, getting off Instagram, ignoring texts and actually typing words until something sounds like something good.)

Here’s the thing about reading. It’s not just about enjoying the story, though of course, a good book or short story should also be a pleasure to read. It’s about exposing yourself to good elements of the craft. Don’t worry, we’re not going to go into what the elements of craft are. (Yeah, we saw you fading there.) The point is, the more that you read good sentences, the more that you write good sentences. When you see characters that lift off the page because they are compelling and relatable, you will write characters that are more complex and realistic. If you read an exquisite description of setting that. . .ok, you get the point. But it’s just true. It’s the closest you’re going to come to learning by osmosis. Because if you read well-written literature, it’s going to seep into your own voice naturally – you won’t have to steal it. You’ll learn what works, and what doesn’t. “And the more that you learn.

The more places you’ll go. Literally, in your case. Because the more you read, the better your writing. The better your writing, the better your college admission essay. The better your college essay, the more places you (can) go. See how that works? And you thought this was overkill for just one stupid essay. Yeah . . . the one stupid essay that is your best chance to influence people who decide the fate of your future. That one stupid essay.

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.”

So pick up a book, already.

What The Walking Dead Can Teach You About Revision

If you have never watched The Walking Dead, hopefully you at least know the basic premise. For the last three of you living under a rock, in a cave, beneath the ocean, here it is. A team of live humans run around a post-apocalyptic Atlanta, trying to avoid being attacked by nearly dead humans, who have just enough brain stem activity left to walk (hence they are called “the walking dead” or “walkers”). In many episodes, friends and relatives of the live humans die and turn into walkers.  The only way to put down a walker is to shoot or stab it in the head. As you can imagine, this is very upsetting to the live humans, because they are attached emotionally to the person who the walker once was, even though they now have a decaying corpse trying to eat them. (Oh yeah, we forgot to say the walkers are trying not only to attack, but eat, the live humans. You gotta watch it, to get it.)

In writing, we have our own walkers that we have to kill. The common expression is “Kill your darlings.” Darlings are gorgeous, Faulkner/Hemingway/Joyce sentences that have been fortunate enough to come out of your pen. You emotionally attach to these sentences, to their perfect poetry, their carefree wit, their musicality and balance. You envision your Pulitzer speech, as you quote…yourself.

Four drafts later, you’ve revised the chapter beyond recognition. Fortunately, it’s now tighter, better organized and more compelling. But. You have carefully preserved your darling, revising all around it. You can’t bear to admit that it has now lost its purpose, and it’s decayed into a shell of what it once was, causing a funky smell in the middle of your revised passage. Once beautiful, perhaps, but now it’s killing the integrity of the revised work. A sentence that seems beautiful but serves no purpose is a walker.  Stab it in the head and live to fight another day.

You’d be surprised how easy it is to fall victim to this, and in college essays, real estate is limited so you have to be particularly ruthless.  But how can you even tell what is a darling? First of all, you love the sentence. This doesn’t mean that every sentence you love is a darling, but if you didn’t love the sentence, and it served no purpose you would have already mercilessly cut it. (Similarly, on The Walking Dead, the live humans don’t hesitate to kill the walkers that are strangers.) So if you love it, look carefully to make sure it’s still alive – moves forward action, reveals character, or at the least, builds purposeful, critical description. If not, you should smell the rotting stench of a dead sentence. Recognize that you just like how it sounds. It has dramatic flair. You sound smart, sensitive, eloquent. But it’s not doing a damn thing. Yeah, we’ve been there. Kill it.

Since darlings aren’t actually cannibalistic zombies (and since this metaphor has been stretched to the very limits of its usefulness), you can just cut it and paste it into a new document and save it. Unlike the walkers, perhaps you can bring it back to life in some other essay. Hey, if you don’t get into college this year, you’ve already got one line done of next year’s applications. So there’s that.

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