Monthly Archives: December 2011

Personal statement tips: How to write concisely.

Often, when starting your personal statement, reaching the word count limit seems like daunting, nearly impossible feat. (“Wait, I’m supposed to write about myself in 500 words?!”) But then, a magical thing occurs and, suddenly, your word count reaches a dizzying height– you now have too much to say and you’ve running out of space to say it. After working so hard on your essay, you now have to cut it down.

I understand that awful, downright painful feeling of having to trim down your own writing; in fact, I go through it nearly every week. It’s a skill that comes with time and practice, but it’s a worthy one to develop. Even when not working on your personal statement specifically, writing concisely is a crucial skill to writing effectively.

This is when the Paramedic Method comes to the rescue. Developed by Dr. Richard A. Lanham in his writing manual, Revising Prose
, the Paramedic Method is a method of shortening your writing to be more clear, more concise, and, by extension, more persuasive. Your statement, of course, should embody these qualities.

How you use the Paramedic Method within your personal statement:


  • Circle the prepositions.Go through your statement, and circle every preposition. (As a reminder, prepositions are words like “at,” “from,” “in,” and “of.”)  Using too many prepositional phrases can muddle your writing and, worse, confuse your reader. Go over your statement and circle all prepositions. Then, see how many superfluous prepositions can be substituted with strong active verbs. This will help get your point across and make for a direct, compelling essay. Of course, some are necessary to include, so exercise discretion.

Example: In this post is an example of the use of the Paramedic Method in writing.

Revised: This post exemplifies the Paramedic Method in writing.

  • Circle the “is” verb forms.Verb structures that rely on “is,” (especially passive verbs) can be weak and unconvincing. Review your statement and circle all instances of  “to be” verbs. Then, see how many you can replace with action verbs, replacing as many verbs in passive voice (“is explained by”) with ones in the active voice (“explains”).

Example: The point I wish to make is that the Paramedic Method works well and helps by improving your writing.

Revised: The Paramedic Method works well and helps improve your writing.

  •  Ask yourself: “Where is the action?” If you get stuck with a passive sentence, always ask the question: “Who does what to whom?” This will help you rewrite passive sentence as active ones. Following the above, make an effort to rewrite passive voice verb structures.

Example: This post is considered Pulitzer prize-worthy by some people.

Revised: Some people consider this post Pulitzer prize-worthy.

  •  Create the “action” with a simple active verb. Avoid using complex verb structures; they will lessen your writing’s impact. Remember, keeping it simple will make your writing that much more effective– Conciseness leads to persuasion.

Example: Quantum mechanics isn’t discussed in this blog.

Revised: This blog does not discuss quantum mechanics.

  • Open strongly, without slow build-up. Be demonstrative at the beginning of each sentence; slow build-up will lose the admissions counselor’s attention. Be direct and confident in what you’re saying by avoiding sentences that open like these:

My opinion is that…

The point I wish to make is that…

The fact of the matter is that…


Still not sure whether this will work? Try the above examples out by copy and pasting it into a word processor or an online word counter to see what I mean. With the exception of the “create action” example (where the word count remained the same but it became infinitely clearer), I managed to shave off up to 9 words from the above example. Pretty amazing, huh?

For more on this method, be sure to check out Dr. Lanham’s book, Revising Prose.

Purple prose: What it is and how to avoid it.

Purple prose is the name given to writing — or, well, prose– that’s just too flowery and too melodramatic for its own good. In other words, just way too much.

“Why would purple prose be a bad thing?”

Well, it clouds the meaning behind your writing and, frankly, doesn’t flatter the writer very well. By its sheer verbosity, purple prose can turn off your reader greatly– which is not a good thing to do if your reader happens to be your professor.

That being said, there actually is no ultimate, absolute definition of what constitutes prose, nor is there a definite list of symptoms. Figuring out whether you have in fact fallen victim to purple prose is often a subjective decision– one person’s purple prose may be another person’s vivid description. Unfortunately (or, fortunately, depending on who you are), this is largely a judgment call.

However, that is not to say that there aren’t basic ground rules to follow; this isn’t a free-for-all. (Sorry!)

So, here are a few things to keep in mind in order to avoid purpling your prose too much:

Avoid words that are too big and fancy. Obviously, there is merit to being erudite and eloquent. However, there is a difference between using a particular word because of its precise definition and using it because it makes you sound smarter. Be honest with yourself, your own writing style, and pay attention to the task at hand. It’s easy to spot when a student is using difficult words for the sake of using them– trust me, I know. Everyone has a particular writing style that is rather distinctive– much like someone’s speaking voice. So, when a student puts on airs, it’s much like someone you know well suddenly speaking in Muppet-voice. And it’s that much more obvious when unnecessarily difficult words are used where clear, simple wording would suffice.

Keep the urge to write flowery, overly vivid descriptions at bay. Descriptors are used to make the reader visualize what you’re describing. However, there is such thing as written sensory overload. Not sure what I mean? Well, here is an example:

The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is an annual contest held by the English Department of San Jose State University. The contest challenges entrants to write the opening lines of the worst possible novels. Of course, each year’s submissions are hilariously bad renditions of “good fiction.” While they are opening lines to non-existent fiction (how is that for a double negative?), they are also excellent exercises in flowery writing, or purple prose.

This is the 2008 grand-prize winner of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest:

Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city, their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist breath through manhole covers stamped “Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N. J.”

Um, what?

First off, thanks for making New York sounds gross(er). Second, there are way too many descriptions–far more than what’s necessary. This, in all its flowery craziness, is an example of vivid imagery gone awry– this, my dear readers, is purple prose.

Avoid self-indulgent writing. Another clue to whether the writing is overdone is that it draws attention to itself rather than to the story. If you find yourself thinking, “By golly, that’s a lovely phrase”, then you’re in trouble. If the phrase is self-indulgent and is far more about your own cleverness than it is about your topic itself, then it has to go. This is, according to William Faulkner Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch*, is called “murdering your darlings.” In his series of lectures titled On the Art of Writing  from 1916 (!), Sir Quiller-Couch wrote: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it–wholeheartedly–and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” Nicely done.

Of course, that is not to say that you have to slaughter or even dump every phrase you are particularly pleased with. You are allowed to marvel at your own genius, yes. So, if there is a phrase in mind that borders on possibly too much, think: if the phrase serves your topic well, it stays but, if it doesn’t, buh-bye. It’s that simple.


*William Faulkner is frequently attributed to the phrase “kill your darlings” when, in actuality, it was Sir Quiller-Couch who coined it. The more you know.

Common Grammar Mistakes: A versus An.

A or an?

This question came up earlier this week and, well, here I am to save the day. Most have learned that you use a before words that start with consonants and use an before words that start with vowels. However, it’s actually a bit more complicated than that.

The rule actually is that you use a before words that start with a consonant sound and an before words that start with a vowel sound.

The question at hand was actually regarding the word “hour” and whether an hour is correct as opposed to a hour. To answer this question specifically, an hour is correct, because hour starts with a vowel sound.

Words that begin with h or u are most confusing because these words can start with either vowel sounds or consonant sounds, regardless of whether a consonant or vowel is actually being used. For example, it is a historic moment because historic starts with an h sound (the h in “h-h-hey!”) but he’s an honorable fellow because honorable starts with an o sound. Similarly, it is a Utopian idea (“you”-topian”), but an unfair world (“uh-nfair”).

The letters o and m can be tricky too, for the same reasons. For example, you would use aif you were to say, “She has a one-track mind,” because one-track starts with a w sound. Similarly, “She has an MBA, but chooses to work as a missionary.”

One complication is when words are pronounced differently in British and American English. For example, the word for a certain kind of plant is pronounced “’erb” in American English and “herb” in British English. So the proper form in America is an (h)erb, and the proper form in Britain is a herb. In the rare cases where this is a problem, use the form that will be expected in the vernacular of the country in question.

I know this seems confusing –I’m sure way more confusing than originally thought!– but, remember: it is the sound that governs whether you use a or an, not the actual first letter of the word.

Application tips: How to survive the home stretch.

In a previous blog post, I gave application tips for those who are basically finished as well as for those who haven’t even started the admissions process yet. Now, I know a lot of you may not have fit into those categories– and, you are not alone. Most of you in fact lie somewhere in the middle– you’ve gotten the ball rolling a long time ago, but you’re not quite done yet. You are by no means green– you have gone over what goes into the admissions process time and time again, and know exactly what is required of you. Yet, time is ticking, and deadlines are approaching and the pressure is on.

Well, unfortunately, the pressure is on– to some extent. By now, you should have already taken the necessary exams and, hopefully, gotten the scores you want. Or, you are either awaiting new scores to come in or planning to retake very soon. Clearly, this is a crucial step in the whole process as test administration dates can frame your entire application timeline– this is especially the case for college and law school applicants. So, ideally, you should have completed this step by now or, at the very least, know when you will be doing so. If not, see my previous blog post about how whether to start the application process from the beginning this late in the game.

With that said, where do you go from here?

First off, breathe. That’s step one. You are almost there. Then, start cracking.

Compile a list of deadlines. To have a full handle of this process, you should have in mind some sort of time-frame of official deadlines and even “unofficial” ones. Meaning, you should know when your schools officially stop receiving applications and when you are hoping to get your applications in by. This list should function as an official tally of when your application materials must be completed by.Most of you should have done this by now. If you haven’t, drop everything right now and figure it out, stat. If this is a mental list, get it down on paper or on-screen; it is more helpful to see this list written out, chronologically, in front of you than juggling it somewhere in your mind. If you have this already written down, pat yourself on the back. Then, revisit it. Be mindful of when everything is due, and when you would like to have them completed by.

Now, time to consider your applications themselves.

Take note of what remains outstanding.  Write down what you have completed already, and congratulate yourself on having done so. Then, concentrate on what remains to be done, and write them down. This will be your “Remaining Items” list. Your list could look like this:

  • Letter of recommendation from Professor Thom
  • Study-abroad transcript from Narnia University
  • Addendum for freshman year “open container” issue
  • Resume
  • Personal statement
  • Diversity statement

I know this seems like a lot– in fact, it may seem like your entire application. However, these are examples of items that you might not have finished entirely and, as such, they are outstanding.  And, chances are, these examples may very well be on your own list, too. So, what now?

Compile your “Next Action” list. Consider what you have listed above. What are the steps necessary to make this “Remaining Items” list a “Completed/Stick a fork in it” one? Think about what actually needs to be done, and write those items down. It very well look like this:

  • Email Prof. Thom to follow-up
  • Check the status on my transcript request from Narnia U.
  • Call admissions rep of XYZ University to find out if I have to disclose an “open container” violation or not
  • Proofread resume
  • Submit personal statement electronically
  • Make final revisions of diversity statement.

Okay, great. Now, your “Remaining Items” list is in a more digestible form– a truly detailed, precise “To Do” list. So, while looking over this new list, think: what can be done immediately?

This, of course, is largely a judgment call– for example, proofreading your essay can be an easy task for, say, me but it can be  a more time-consuming and arduous task for someone else. Also, if you have been working on your personal statement nonstop the past couple of weeks, you may feel that it’s time to work on other parts of your application. So, carefully consider what can be done right now, and what should be worked on in the long run. Submitting an essay electronically certainly takes less time than revising a whole diversity statement so, if you have a few minutes to spare, you can definitely squeeze in the former in the meantime.

This, of course, is an exercise in effective time management— of how to fit in what needs to get done in the time that you have remaining. So, taking these lists into account– your deadlines, remaining items, and next actions– you should be able to create and maintain a firm grasp on your application process. Now that your oh-so close to the finish line, you must have the utmost control over what needs to get done, and when. Being mindful of when your materials need to be in, what remains to be completed, and what remains to be done is only way to do that.

How to choose a final paper topic for a class you hate.

Whether you’re in undergrad, graduate school, or even post-graduate study, at some point or another, you’ll end up in a course you can’t stand. For whatever reason, you just hate this class– it could be your professor, your fellow students, the course topic, the readings, or even the classroom itself that sucks. Regardless of why it’s awful, you still have to suffer through it and, worse yet, you’ll still have to write a final paper for it.

As I explained in a previous blog post, the goal of a final paper is to demonstrate your full grasp and knowledge of the course and its content to the professor. So, to get over this hatred hump and on your way to writing this dreaded assignment, start thinking of how this course relates to your focus of study, as a whole: how does this course fit into your major or concentration? Graduate students, I’m especially looking at you. If you’re an undergraduate student within a specialized concentration, the same applies to you as well. What outside information can you bring into this class? Are there any overarching themes that can be drawn from other classes you’ve taken within your major track or course of study?

If you’re taking this only because it’s a requirement for your major or, even worse, as a general degree requirement, then consider what stuck out most to you during the class– what interested you the most out of the material? Maybe it was a particular reading or lecture topic that caught your attention, or an idea that has permeated the course material and throughout the course itself. What did you like most and, therefore, can talk about for pages on end?

If you have truly gained nothing out of this course and can’t think of a single thing you liked about it, then go with what you know– what did you understand best out of all the material? What can you explain to the best of your ability?

Ask yourself these questions as part of a bit of self-assessment and carefully consider your answers. If you’re having a bit of trouble coming up with viable answers and ideas, do some free-writing to get yourself going. Appropriate topics come from these considerations; ideas surrounding the arc of the course as well as what you can personally relate to within the material are fodder for good papers.

Of course, if you’re still stuck, talk to your professor or, at the very least, your TA; naturally, they can give you some of the best insight into what they’re looking for. Or, talk to your classmates. Discuss with them what they aim to write their papers about and use that as inspiration. (But, their ideas are meant only as inspiration for your own! Don’t ever, ever cheat.)

Continue to brainstorm and to mull over these concepts until you find a thesis idea you’re comfortable enough with that your professor will want to read and, most importantly, you can write about for pages on end.  Remember, your end-goal is to show your full grasp and understanding of the arc of the course. So, taking all this into account and delving into the connections and ties made within the course would fulfill your professor’s expectations or perhaps even go above and beyond them– possibly amounting to some serious brownie points.

Stefanie Arr

Common Grammar Mistakes: Double negatives.

“Why are double negatives so bad?”

I was asked this question recently by a student, and I decided to answer it here.

Double negatives often amount to much confusion– not because of misconstrued usage like lay and lie or affect and effect, but because of misplaced meaning. Like dangling participles, double negatives create ambiguity within a statement, potentially confusing the reader.

Wait, I still don’t get it; what’s a double negative?

A double negative is where two forms of negation are used in the same sentence. When this happens, the negation in the sentence isn’t intensified or made “double-bad”– it is instead made positive.  In essence, two wrongs do make a right, in the case of double negatives anyway. For those of you who know formal logic, this will sound very familiar to you. There are exceptions, but, unless your writing in a foreign language, they does not apply here: in languages like French or Spanish, the use of double negatives do mean something is super-ultra-mega-bad but, in English, it does not.

Here are a few examples of double negatives:

  • I don’t not love you
  • I can’t get no satisfaction
  • We ain’t got no history
  • We don’t need no education

In these examples, the double negative creates an opposite meaning: the two negatives cancel each other out and form a positive sense.  So, “I don’t not love you” becomes “I don’t not love you,” and “we ain’t got no history” really means “we ain’t got no history.” Aw.

Of course, double negatives can sometimes be used creatively, such as in advertising; when “Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee” is sung, what’s being implied is that everybody likes Sara Lee. However, even in creative use, double negatives can lead to some confusion: is Pink Floyd really calling for thought control? Is Mick Jagger really asserting his ability to in fact gain satisfaction, as opposed to, well, not getting any?

As such, the double negative is, generally speaking, to be avoided– that is, unless you’re using it within a creative context. Who knows what Roger Waters was going for but, at the very least, be mindful of it yourself.