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.

Six Things You Must Do Before You Push Submit

It’s getting damn close to the due date for college applications. So, in the midst of all the pressure, you might well be getting to that place of just crashing and saying, “I can’t do this anymore, I’m just sending it. No one deserves to live this way. I want my real life back.” Problem is, you won’t have a real life next year if you don’t get through this. Yeah, we’re not so much with the soft and fluffy. Anyway. Man up. You’re almost there. Do not succumb to crazy town until you go through the following with the essay. Then you can push send, start to drool, or curl under the bed. But you probably just need some cupcakes and sleep.

1. Read the essay out loud to another person. You didn’t write the essay for yourself, you wrote it for someone else (the keeper of the keys to the School You Really Want to Get Into), so read it aloud to someone, it always reveals something different about the writing than reading the paper in your head. And reading aloud to yourself doesn’t work either. Don’t know why. Doesn’t matter.

2. “Read” it backwards. You’ll in fact, stop reading and actually look at each word, making it more likely that you don’t skim over spelling errors. The more you’ve worked on the essay, the more you’ll benefit from this trick, because you’ve basically begun to memorize bits of the essay and now you are not reading, you’re reciting, which means you are not actually looking at the words on the paper. Neat, huh? No, not neat. You’re supposed to be making sure that this piece of paper is in top form. So look at each word in reverse order to force your brain to stop with the mental gymnastics and play editor.

3. Rethink your title. There is an instinct to slap on a title as an afterthought, but actually it’s a missed opportunity to make a great entrance into the room. The title isn’t a deal breaker – a great essay will save itself — but why not start strong? Just stop and reconsider the title.

4. Rework your first line. No, rework it again – you just paused briefly and told yourself it was ok. Probably isn’t – sorry, it’s just that when you start writing an essay, you just…start. And that’s great, that’s how you get sh*t on a piece of paper and start moving forward and have anything productive. But then begins the heavy lifting of revising. And often people are a couple of lines into the essay before they really start concentrating. And this happens every time you revise, so every time that first sentence is the stepchild of the revision process. So write just the first line of the essay in the center of a blank sheet of paper. Is it powerful? Professional writers are constantly told how they can seduce a reader (and an editor, which is the keeper of the readers, and in your case, the admissions officer, which is the keeper of the thick envelopes) with just that first line. If you don’t believe it, walk into a bookstore and flip through a couple of books and read the first few lines of each and see which ones you want you want to keep reading. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” No, you can’t use that one.

5. Check spelling. Check spelling. Check the spelling!! Do you know how annoying and embarrassing and awful it’s going to look if you misspelled a word on your college application essay? If you’re on the Common Application, it’s 650 words. Max. And you might have done it in less. If you must, do 20 words at a time, eat an apple, come back and do 20 more. Come to 5 Hundred Words and have us do it, if you don’t trust yourself – that’s not a shameless plug, it’s not — what we’re saying here is, there is zero reason for anything to go out with something as basic as spelling not perfect. Consider this: “I saw her walk out the door, and thought to myself, ‘their goes the love of my life’, and I collapsed.” We don’t love the sentence anyway (never mind) but now we’re so distracted by the misspelling that…ick, ew…just…moving on. In fact, if we were college admissions officers and saw a misspelled word we’d stop reading, cuz, really, screw you. Last year Columbia had over 33,000 applicants, and even with a team of 20 essay readers (which might well be generous) that’s more than 1500 essays per person, and now we gotta read the joker who either 1) doesn’t know “their” from “there”, or 2) didn’t care enough to spell check? Next.

6. Punctuation too. Why? Because you can seriously damage your whole sentence with mucked up punctuation. Spelling crap looks sloppy; punctuation crap will ruin your life. “I’m about to eat that bro.” which obviously should have been, “I’m about to eat that, bro.” Again, the sentence itself is a hot mess, but the first one is also fratricide, which pretty much moots the grammar quality control issues. And your chances of admission, since that isn’t the kind of thing schools want on campus, if they can avoid it.

Back to Instagram.

Don’t Spam Admissions Officers — Essay Topics for the Junk Folder

Spam the meat and spam the mail have the same PR challenge.

They don’t seem genuine, appealing or have any real flavor. People work hard to avoid both, and when it comes to spam mail, people just can’t delete fast enough, unsubscribe themselves, and curse under their breath at the mere sight of it.

Don’t spam the admissions officer.

Don’t write about some crappy, played topic that’s been recycled and diluted and regurgitated to the point where an admissions officer begins to fall asleep when he starts to read one. Many of the top schools receive thousands of applications. So that’s thousands of essays to read through. Send a spam essay and he’s already miserable. Ok, so he can’t delete it because it’s like, his job and all, but do you really want him to wish he could?

No, you don’t.

So, we’ve listed here college essay topics that suck. Some of these might be on your list as possibilities, others might be an obvious “hell, no”, but we’ve caught wind of variations of all of these. Don’t do them. No, really, don’t. Yes, you could hope to be the one person who writes on one of these topics and is able to wow the admissions officer. You could also hope to be the person who wins the $120 million Powerball. Hope is not a strategy. So cross these right off your list:

1. Sports-related Victory, or Loss, That Showed You “The Meaning of Life”. Oh, God, yawn, shoot us in the face if another person writes about team spirit and how they learned that it’s not all about winning. Or being a team captain and learning the real meaning of leadership. Or the sacrifice and self-discipline to be prepared athletically, yada, yada, yada. Ugh. It doesn’t matter if it’s well written, because it’s been written so many times before. Learning the meaning of anything through sports is so cliché. Nobody cares.

2. Meeting People Abroad With Less Opportunity Than Me, aka, I Am Now So Grateful For What I Have. You live in the United States, one of the wealthiest nations on earth. If you tell an admissions officer that at 17 years old you finally discovered there were people worse off than you, she may be suspicious that you were smart enough to earn any of the grades on the other part of the application. You’ll sound entitled, clueless, patronizing and boring. You should have been grateful sooner than this. If you weren’t, keep it to yourself. No one wants to hear you grew a soul last week. And don’t even think about writing the dirty cousin topic – meeting people who live in the U.S. who have less than you. That’s just offensive. Seriously. Who ARE you?

3. First Person in My Family to Go to College. Ok, this is going to sound cruel. So, what? You want to go to college or have us hold your hand? Here’s the thing. U.S.? Built by immigrants, slaves and Native Americans. Lots of amazing folks have worked hard to get to where they are. So…while it’s super sweet that your family is going to be so proud of you, you’re just not the only one with this tale to tell. Welcome to upward mobility. You have arrived. And really, all this tells us is that you had kick a*s parents who killed themselves to get you to this point. Write them a thank you note. For the admissions officer, write something else.

4. I Love the Weather/The Campus is Beautiful/I Love the Football Team. Wait, what? You’re going to college to get an education. . .or at least pretend so on the application. No matter how proud a school is of their sports teams (and colleges, you know who you are), an admissions officer is not going to be impressed that you’re planning your academic career based on their NCAA rankings (and yes, even if you’re going to be on the team). And California schools get more applications than any other state in the nation. They know their weather rocks. This is kind of like asking a girl out and telling her you’re into her because she’s hot, and not because she’s cool, funny, or a little bit cray-cray but in a good way. Schools want to be loved too, and not just for their big muscles or well-tended lawns. Make them feel special for what they are on the inside (of the classroom) – institutions of higher learning.

5. My Whole Family Has Gone to This School Since Time Began. Ok, no lie, schools do make room for legacies, and you would be remiss not to put that somewhere else on the application. And it’s even ok if that’s what put the school on your list of choices. But you cannot build a college essay based on the fact that you already have alumni seats. It sounds lazy, like you couldn’t be bothered to check out the 2000 other schools available, and entitled, like they just have to let in the great-great-granddaughter of Mrs. Margaret Whogivesacrap. Or, that you just programmatically did what you were told by Mom and Dad, class of 19XX. Admissions officers want to hear that you independently arrived at the decision to apply. Now, the bursar’s office, that’s a group that are happy to hear from Mom and Dad. . .and they’ll be plenty thrilled that the family money is still green. Tell the admissions officer why you want to be the 23rd person in your family to wear their school colors. And make it sound legit.

Ok, we’ve harassed you enough. Back to Instagram.

Words That Suck and How to Avoid Them. (Or, why ‘little’ and ‘very’ are cheap as* words.)

If you’re knee deep in your essay, or knee deep in thinking about writing your essay, here’s a heads up once you’ve got a first draft. It’s a way of making sure that you haven’t slipped into lazy writing, which basically means not thinking about your word choices. You should be choosing a filet mignon of the English lexicon and instead you’ve slapped down Salisbury steak. Which is barely meat, let alone steak.

Don’t do that.

Go through the whole thing and check for words like this: very, little, small, big, really ( when used like very) and circle them in a red pen. They must go. Pick them off like lice on a schoolboy.

Here’s why. Let’s use very, the dark lord of crap words. Very is cheap runny catchup on a bad burger.

How is that not clear?

Ok, you’re eating some overcooked sawdust beef patty and there’s nothing you can do. So you desperately reach for a packet of the off brand, runny, flavorless catsup. Did it help? Not really.

If you look behind every very you might well see your overcooked sawdust adjective or adverb. You chose a crappy, lazy word — little, small, big, fast, loud, quiet. In desperation you slapped ‘very’ on it to save it. That’s a bullsh*t move. Just pick a great word in the first place.

Here’s an example: Loud. Loud? Seriously? You’re better than that. And here’s a hint and a half — if you could say the word when you were four, maybe you should up the vocab stakes. Show those college folks you went to…English class.

Why would you say ‘very loud’? If it’s important to the story that some moment was loud, put some decent clothes on that moment. Maybe it boomed, crashed, exploded? Was it deafening, obliterating? You’re familiar with the SAT, yes?

Oh, look — ‘very deafening’ is redundant. See? If you are good to your words they will be good to you. In fact, if you use a word that just sounds weird with very — like very enormous (what would that look like, exactly?), chances are high that you have chosen a nice quality descriptor.

So use good words. And by good (another likely sawdust contender), I mean dynamic, emotive, evocative, soulful words that come with their own zing and flavor and don’t need a crappy catsup word like very to prop them up.

You get the idea.

Ok. Back to Instagram.

Taking Chances With Your Essay

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader, no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” — Robert Frost

 

All of us who enjoy writing are tortured by Mr. Frost’s quote because we know he is correct, and curse ourselves daily trying to build complex characters that you, the reader, worship or loathe or fear, so that we can do terrible things to them and make you cry. Or gasp. Or both. But that’s fun at the same time, sort of, especially for those of us who write fiction.

For those of you writing college essays, let’s wander over to our masochistic friends in memoir… you’re going to be in their playground, because by and large, you’ll be sharing personal stories. And when we read personal stories we are intrigued, for the right reasons or wrong ones, whether they are a hero to us or we just want to see the b*tch taken down a notch, because we just love to see more of someone’s real painful truth than we ought to. So if someone pulls back the curtain, we peek in. And if what’s in there is scary or sad or funny or sickening, we remember it. We don’t often allow others in on that level, and as Bobby said up top – if it makes us cry or surprises us, then you’re in like Flynn.

So. How might this translate to a college application essay? Consider being a bit more painfully honest than you might have planned.

Wait. This is not to say you should bare your soul and offer up the most humiliating, shameful moment of your life. Especially if this is something which you are still very much recovering from emotionally or physically or is an ongoing trauma in your life. This is about being memorable and refreshingly transparent, not about freaking people out — including yourself.

That’s crazy. No school is worth it. Seriously. No — seriously. And there are plenty of articles out there warning about students who overshared. Don’t be a cautionary tale.

But our experience is that most students actually dial it down too much — they suck all the lifeblood out of, well, their life. In their anxiousness to say what they think schools want to hear, they end up with a very bland, one dimensional report. It certainly doesn’t offend, but it also doesn’t impress. College essays are about teaching the university about you, what defines you. They want to know what you’re proud of, or scared of, or excited about. They want to know why you feel the way you do.

A lot of personal growth is ultimately reactions and adjustments to a series of events over time. And for better or worse, some unpleasant moments yield the most growth. So, if you have a moment that, while painful/humiliating/saddening at the time, was also a period where you evolved, consider sharing it. In the end, the essay is about either who you are, or what college is (to you). Behind a lot of doctors is a personal story of loss that inspired them. There are plenty of lawyers who witnessed great injustice.  Yada, yada.  Now, don’t use this as a cheap tear jerker tactic. First, it makes you an as*shole and second, if they see it coming it won’t work. But if it’s legit, you might discover that this personal moment that you’re burying, could be the very story that a school would most like to hear.

So that leaves the issue of telling someone else. And the idea of an admission officer knowing that story makes you want to crawl into a dark and dusty corner? Totally get it. I mean for all the big talk here, you’ve yet to see me bust out with a personal example to prove this point, right? And I’m not gonna. Cuz I don’t want to, and I already have a degree. But let’s consider two things: a) here’s brutal, ex-lawyer, gloves-off honesty — remember the end game here – you want to get into this school, right?  You may be sitting on a true story that is naturally compelling and evocative — should you quash it for a subpar safe story that has to be pumped up with synthetic emotion?  And b) you’re not going for juice boxes with the admissions officer every weekend once you get to campus, so how often do you think you have to relive this essay? It would be damn unprofessional for her to rock up in the dining hall and put her arm around you and start talking about it. And that’s assuming she even remembered it eight months later.

Consider the incredible impact of a real story, with true emotion, over playing it safe with some bland cookie cutter ‘what I learned as team captain’ tale.

Will it be incredibly fun to write this? Nope. Will it possibly be the most real thing you’ve ever written? Maybe.

Something to consider.

Ok. Back to Instagram.