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.

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Kurt Vonnegut Can Help You Go to College: Part 1 of 2

A lot of writers try as best they can to adhere to, or at least keep in mind, the Eight Rules for Writing of Kurt Vonnegut (author of Cat’s Cradle andSlaughterhouse-Five, among many others). While the rules are generally for fiction writers, they all are equally useful guidelines when you are writing your college essay.

Spoiler alert: they’re not easy, and you won’t master all of them between now and January 1. But if you test your essay against these, you may see some weaknesses that you can fix. And, hey, that’s something.

8 Rules for Writing  

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

This could not be more important in a college admission essay. As we’ve said many times before, the final selection of students comes down to those who can distinguish themselves beyond just grades and test scores.  If the personal essay doesn’t tell the admissions officer anything more than what they already got from the rest of your application, it’s essentially a waste of time. Tell them something about you that is useful (and advantageous) that they don’t already know.

2.  Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

If your instinct is, “That’s easy, I’ll be the subject of the essay.”, then you’re missing the point. Canroot for is a little misleading – what Mr. Vonnegut means is to want to root for, to be emotionally invested in. If your story isn’t compelling enough – if you are not compelling enough — then the reader won’t really care that you successfully saved a burning orphanage (or whatever).  You need the reader to connect with someone in your story — that way they care about what happens.

By the way, you — the applicant — don’t have to be the character they are rooting for. If you were trying to teach someone – call him Harry — to read, the story can be about their struggle to overcome their illiteracy. Naturally, in the end, you’ll need to bring the story back around to you and how it impacted your life – but the story’s hero, so to speak, doesn’t have to be you.

One of the best ways to make the reader care is for the character to want something, and then the reader becomes attached to whether that character gets it. Which leads us to…

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

To illustrate this, let’s continue with the example of Harry, who can’t read.  What does he want? To learn to read. Done. The trick of course is then to write it in such a compelling way that the reader also wants Harry to learn. (We know some people who can help. . .oh come on, one shameless plug.)

Because we’re talking about college admission essays, you are also a character, and you also need to show what you want — and why. Harry might be the one we’re rooting for, which makes the essay draw us in, but why do you care if he can read – that’s what the admissions officer wants to know.

You’ve probably already described the literacy organization in the activities section of the application – but that just tells the admissions officer that you did it. The essay about Harry is the chance to show who you are, and who we are can be revealed by what we want. Do you know personally someone with special learning challenges who can never learn to read, and you want to make sure all who can, do? Do you want to be an educator, and this was a first step in that direction? The first is an emotional driver, the second professional. Neither is wrong – both types of people add value to a college community. But you can see how this shows who you are and what you want in a way that other parts of your application just can’t. Fun, huh? Ok. . . fine, moving on.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

College essays are short. You have to get to where you’re going. . .fast. Every sentence should be loaded with purpose, and they should either keep the story moving forward, or show us something about who the characters are as a result of those events. Write your first draft, then go back and read each sentence and ask yourself, why do I have this sentence? What purpose does it serve?  Did I already say it, but in a different way? If you do this well, your story will be tight and your reader will eat it up, they’ll sail through it to find out what happens next. Unnecessary language, and the story begins to drag and the reader has to power through. (You don’t want an admissions officer trying to power through your personal essay.)  And remember, watching Harry learn to read advances the action, but the character we need to learn about is you — how you were impacted by Harry’s conquer of illiteracy. In the end, it needs to be clear how this experience impacted who you were, who you are, who you want to be. This is The You Show. You’re the one who picked this school. Not Harry.

Ok, enough for now.

For the complete rules, see our e-book, How Kurt Vonnegut Can Help You Get Into College.

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