Common grammar mistakes: Dangling participles.

As an editor, I have a number of literary and textual pet peeves. Surprisingly (or, perhaps not?), lolspeak is not one of them. But, in any case, some things just drive me More »

Personal Statements: Do’s and Don’ts.

The admissions cycle is just about to begin and questions have already been rolling in. So, to help you navigate this often nerve-racking time, I’ve compiled a list of some of the More »

How to approach your personal statement.

The personal statement is an elusive animal; nearly every school in existence requires one and, yet, it is one of the most confusing, difficult parts of an application to get down. My More »

Personal statement tips.

Personal statements, or admissions essays, are definitely one of the hardest parts of the admissions process, a process that is already stressful to begin with. Now that the application cycle is just More »

Paragraphs and how to use them.

Paragraphs are incredibly important– whether you’re writing a short response paper or an epic long dissertation, you need them. Why? Without them, your writing will seem like a long, unedited diatribe– endless More »

How to make your professor like you.

How to make your professor like you. (From @boetter on Flickr.)

Now that the semester is fully underway, I’ve been getting a number of questions from students about how to ensure good grades by this semester’s end, from general paper-writing help to more subject-specific questions. However, an interesting one came to me earlier this week that I thought would be best served by a post all to itself (here you go, Erika!):

“How do I get my professor to like me?”

This question is an understandable one– after all, why wouldn’t you want someone to like you? Of course, there are more practical reasons to win over or even befriend your professor; for instance, your grades. You may also have to ask for a letter of recommendation— an equally important reason to give your professor your best impression. Or, you can be in search of an advisor to mentor you during your course of study, also a very important reason to win at least one professor over.

Professors can certainly be intimidating. They are in an authoritarian position, and are generally well-respected in their field– a field that you are still learning and still new to. But, here’s the kicker: professors are people, too. Yes, I know, this may seem like a surprise. But, consider why they would they chose to become professors in the first place. Ideally, they did so with the best intentions in mind– to educate people like you on topics they hold close to heart, whether it be English or economics, gender theory or quantum physics. As such, professors do want to see you succeed, especially in a field they love and enjoy being immersed in. For these reasons, don’t think that you have to do something extraordinary or tricky to “get” him or her to like you. But, you do have to put some effort into it.

So, here are a few tips on how to impress your professor– and maybe even become friends with them.

Have a good attendance record.

One of the key ways to impress your professor is to be present in class. I know this is somewhat of a no-brainer; after all, it’s hard to leave a good impression on a professor if you’re not there. So, make it a point to attend class, at all times. Yes, professors usually do offer some sort allowance for absences, but don’t take this for granted; avoid using “sick days” to play hooky, as you never know when you’ll really need them later in the semester. But, should you find you’re unable to attend class for whatever reason, let your professor know as soon as possible. Whether it’s because of illness, a family emergency, or work issues, a heads-up is always appreciated– it is considered a sign of a responsible student and is even just a nice thing to do.

Do your assignments.

Okay, this is yet another no-brainer. But, really, you must do all your assignments, written or otherwise. When I say this takes effort, I mean it– you can’t just glide through class, shirking off coursework, and expect a professor to have only a positive impression of you. While, yes, you can possibly get away with minimal work and input, you risk leaving at the very least a neutral impression, which is dangerously close to no impression at all. So, read all the assignments given, follow the syllabus, and do what is being asked of you. Follow all directions given to the letter, including deadlines. You certainly don’t want to be remembered for what you don’t do correctly– that is definitely not the way you want to get attention. If you have a question, don’t hesitate to bring it up to the professor; this will actually help you with the steps that follow.

Be active in class.

Imagine standing in front of a group of people, trying to explain a number of crucial concepts. Yet, some are dozing off, some are clearly distracted, and some seem to just not care. You ask a question… and you’re only met by silence. Consider what your reaction might be– would you be annoyed? Anxious? Maybe even aggravated? Regardless of which of these feelings you might have in this situation, I’m sure it’s not a feeling you’d want your professor to have during lecture or seminar.

While your physical presence is necessary to succeed in a class (see above), active participation is also key. You’ll need to pay attention, and participate in class discussion– yes, this includes volunteering information, not just waiting until your professor calls on you. Interact with the material; see what themes you can draw from the material (lecture, readings, etc.) and how this relates to the arc of the course. (I’ve written a few blog posts that elaborate on this.) If you’re not certain about the material, ask questions– openly asking about something you’re not sure about not only shows you’re paying attention, but that you care enough to ask for further explanation.

Talk to your professor outside of class.

Active discussion doesn’t have to be relegated to just class-time. Consider talking to your professor outside of class– either before or after class meets, or during his or her office hours. Is there something particularly exciting or interesting about the material? Does the class in any way relate directly to your field of study? If you answered yes to either of these questions, then you have plenty of fodder for conversation, especially if the part of your major or program of study. Talking to your professor about your academic interests is almost always a good idea. Not only will you gain upvotes in the eyes of your professor, but you could potentially open some doors for yourself– you never know if there’s an internship, assistantship, or other great opportunity around the corner. Likewise, this kind of discussion is what fuels great letters of recommendation— you’ll allow your professor to get to know you and also show them how much you care about your work, your education, and, yes, their class.



Grammar Myths Debunked: Starting a sentence with “because.”

Grammar Myths Debunked: Starting Sentences with "Because" (From dickdotcom on Flickr.)

A frequent issue that comes up while editing is whether or not sentences can start with the word, “because.” This answer to this question is actually hotly contested… and often misconstrued.

Can you start a sentence with “because”?

The answer is yes. Yes, you can! It’s perfectly okay to start a sentence with because. The word, because is a subordinating conjunction; meaning, it introduces subordinating clauses. In function, it is similar to the words after and although, and the phrases as if, and in order that— all words that can begin sentences without a problem. See?

However, you still have to be careful– when using because or any  other subordinating conjunction, you must have a main clause in your sentence. Meaning, you cannot use a subordinate clause on its own, as it would be a fragment.

Here is an example of what I mean.

Because I woke up late, I missed my flight.

This sentence is correct. Why? “I missed my flight” is the main clause of the sentence– meaning, this clause, by itself, is a perfectly fine sentence that can stand up on its own. A subordinate clause can augment a main clause but, as it is subordinating, it cannot stand by itself. “Because I woke up late” by itself would be a fragment.

A helpful way to remember this is to think of subordinating clauses separately, and consider whether it provides enough information in its own to satisfy what needs to be known. Such as:

Because the table was wobbly, I spilled some of my coffee.

“Because the table was wobbly” doesn’t offer enough information on its own: because the table was wobbly what? What happened? Why does the table’s wobbliness matter? “I spilled some of my coffee” is the answer to these burning questions.

In these examples, I’ve formed these sentences to be [subordinate clause] + [main clause]  so the difference is immediately clear– they are separated by a comma and are easier to spot. However, the same rules apply if you are to write these sentences as [main clause] + [subordinate clause]. Such as:

I missed my flight because I woke up late.

“I missed my flight” stands on its own and, while it’s a crappy situation, gives enough information by itself. “Because I woke up late” still doesn’t make sense, without being prefaced with what happened, first.

I spilled my coffee because the table was wobbly.

Likewise, “I spilled my coffee” is another unfortunate situation that can stand alone. “Because the table was wobbly” is not enough to stand up by itself.*


*I promise this pun was accidental!



How to get a great letter of recommendation.

How to get a letter of recommendation (From staralee on Flickr.)

Nearly every program and school asks for at least one letter of recommendation in the application packet– often, they even ask for two or three. The good news is that these recommendations are written for you– for once, you don’t have to outline! That being said, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t any preparation involved.

Hard data, like your GPA and test scores, and your essays, like your personal statement, diversity statement, or addendum, are relatively in your control, based on your own preparation, hard work, and writing skills. Letters of recommendation, however, are a different animal. When getting a recommendation letter, you are entrusting someone else, your recommender, to write about your intellectual ability and academic capability.  You are essentially leaving it to your recommendation writer to inform the admissions counselor —directly– of what they can expect of your performance.

The purpose of a recommendation is to provide an insider’s view for the admissions counselor– your letter writer is essentially telling your prospective school of what expect of you within the classroom, from administrator to administrator, tête-à-tête. A recommendation then functions very much like a reference when applying for a job; it provides valuable information to admissions committees with information that isn’t found elsewhere in the application. It is a detailed discussion of the personal qualities, accomplishments, and experiences that make you an ideal candidate.

To guarantee a good recommendation, you clearly have to choose someone who will vouch for you in the best way possible. So, you will have to do some careful thinking. To help you, here are some tips on how to ensure your recommendation letter is a great one.


Choose recommendation writers who know you best.

There are a number of factors you need to keep in mind when considering possible recommenders. Obviously, you need to find someone who can describe you in a positive light; however,  the writer in question must also know you well enough to back up their high opinion of you. Your letter should be more than just a good description of your abilities– it should also be well-written and knowledgeable of who you are as person, an applicant, and as a student. Be sure to choose someone who not only knows you, but also knows your work and who would then be able to write about you with confidence and with authority. You should also consider how favorably this person could compare you to your peers.

That being said, this doesn’t necessarily mean that your writer should automatically be the person who knows you for the longest. You need to find someone who can speak of the breadth of your work– ideally, the person who has worked the closest with you and who knows you better, however long that may have been.


Your recommendation should reflect your past achievements.

Much like your personal statement, your recommendation should explain why you are an ideal candidate. Now, a recommendation is essentially professional’s opinion and, as such, as recommendation should be backed up, with concrete examples.

Don’t take for granted how much your recommendation writer knows about you. If you’ve been following along, they should already know you better than most. But, by all means, you should give them a fuller picture of what you’re accomplished and what your interests are. The more informed they are, the better and stronger their recommendation will be of you and your abilities.

So, when you meet with your advisor or professor, bring your resume. You can also bring a draft of your personal statement or diversity statement, if you’ve started working on them already. Don’t be afraid to talk about other aspects of the admissions process; after all, your recommender is there to help you get in. Talk to your recommender and discuss the achievements you’ve been awarded or accomplishments you’ve made in other classes, at work, or elsewhere. Allow your recommender to have full knowledge of all that you’ve have done; remember, their recommendation can only be as well-informed of your accomplishments as they are themselves.
Your recommendation should also include your future professional and academic goals.

Yes, when you ask someone to write a recommendation letter for you, you are already involving them in the process of applying to prospective schools. However, their involvement is more than just writing a letter for you; they are directly speaking to the admissions counselor on your behalf. As I said above, you want to choose someone whose recommendation can speak well of you. He or she will also know that you are clearly applying to a particular school or program and are hoping to get in. But, do they know know what your goals are exactly?

As I had said above, your recommender will only know as much as you tell them. When asking for a recommendation, talk to your letter writer. Discuss at length what your goals are, and what you are hoping to accomplish in the future. Your letter should ideally reflect your professional aims– by doing so, you will bolster your application two-fold: it will show that you are serious enough in your goals to involve others in your career planning and give you that professional affirmation that you are committed to succeeding.




Common Grammar Mistakes: Fewer versus Less

Common Grammar Mistakes: Fewer versus Less. (By Jennifer Peyton from Flickr.)

So, for today’s grammar topic, I’m covering the difference between fewer and less.

Now, less and fewer pretty much mean the same thing—they both mean the opposite of more. So, what’s the problem?

Well, what differentiates these two is not their definition, but the types of nouns that they are used to describe. At its most basic, the rule is that you use less with mass nouns and fewer with count nouns.

Count nouns are, well, things that you can count. Whether they are books, pens, or Skittles, these are all things that can be counted individually. So, if you can count them, it’s a count noun which means it belongs with fewer, as in, “You should eat fewer Skittles.”

Mass noun, on the other hand, are nouns that describe things that can’t be counted individually. These can’t be pluralized– for example, rice, dust, or wool are all mass nouns, all words that can’t be made plural. Because these things can’t be counted individually, so they are described with the word less. For example: “If I had less dust in my house, I wouldn’t sneeze as much.” This clearly makes much more sense than “If I had fewer dusts in my house.” So, if you have difficulty pluralizing the word — the words clutter, leather, and cloth are more examples– then this signifies that it is a mass noun.

Sometimes, however, determining certain words as being either count nouns or mass nouns can be a bit confusing. For example, coffee or soda can be either count nouns or mass nouns depending on how they are referred to. For instance, if you are making coffee, it is a liquid that can’t be quantified– so, if the coffee pot overflows, you need to make less coffee next time. Yet, if you’re a barista making cups of coffee as a barista, you may need to serve fewer coffees if patrons decide to leave. Of course, the noun that is actually being count is the word cups — the cups are being counted, not the coffee itself– but, it is common to refer to a cup of coffee as just “a coffee” and so this distinction must be clear. Mass nouns (like coffee) can’t be made plural but, in this case, it can be made into a count nounI’ve made a mass noun plural, but in the process I transformed it into a count noun.

Another tricky noun is the word furniture; it isn’t immediately obvious whether it is a mass noun or a count noun. Like coffee, it is technically a mass noun, even though it can describe multiples of count nouns– there can be countable pieces of furniture, but furniture itself is a collective name for a mass of stuff. You could say, “There are too many places to sit; we need fewer couches,” but you would never say, “we need fewer furnitures.”

Of course, we can never be without exceptions. For instance, it is customary to use the word less to describe time, money, and distance. Yes, they are quantifiable, but they require less rather than fewer: “The flight time is less than two hours so I hope to pay less than $350 per ticket.” But, aside from time, money, and distance, the rules I stated above remain the same.

So, now that we’ve gotten count nouns and mass nouns straightened out, let’s finish up by clarifying a very important fact: Most signs for supermarket express lanes are wrong. As you know, most of the signs for these lanes read, “10 items or less.” Now you know that these are grammatically incorrect and should instead read, “10 items or fewer.” Why? Because, of course, items are individual, countable things. As such, they are count nouns which means it uses the word fewer. Why this mistake is made in practically every grocery store and supermarket is beyond me but, at the very least, now you know the difference.


How to have a successful semester, from the start.

Plan for school. (from Kate Consumption on Flickr.)

In earlier posts I’ve covered time management tips, and ways to make your work load (and, therefore, your life) easier.

So, now that the semester is in full swing, here’s a few tips on how to manage your time correctly, from the start.

Map out your work load.

The first step to optimal time management is to know exactly what will be due this semester, and when. Collect all your syllabi given at the start of classes and jot down in your calendar when every single assignment is due. Whether it’s a paper, presentation, or simply a set of readings, write them down. It doesn’t matter if you compile this into a weekly planner, iCal, or Hello Kitty wall calendar– what’s important is to create some sort of temporal guide of when everything are due, so that you can plan your time accordingly, leaving no room for error. Also, be sure to be as specific as possible so that you can immediately identify what each assignment is and what exactly the assignment entails.

Map out your weekly schedule.

Next, you should have at least a general idea of what your weekly schedule would be like. Ideally, you will know your course schedule before class begins; if you are working, you should also know of where these classes will fit into your schedule. Even for those who work in shifts, you should have at least a general idea of what your schedule will look like, at least roughly. Whatever that case is, you should plan our when during the week you will be class, at work, or at any other obligation that you may have and for how long.

The purpose of this is to figure out, at least generally, how much free time you will have during the week. Aside from knowing when things are due, a crucial part of effective time management is knowing how much time you have to work with. When creating your schedule, it’s helpful for you to see all the items on your schedule– including free time– in blocks of time. Breaks between classes, free evenings or mornings (!!) should be blocked out in your weekly schedule, just as like your classes or work shifts. These time blocks need to be delineated just like real “things to do” because these chunks of free time are what you are actually going to manage. To manage them –or anything else– properly, you need to be fully conscious of their limitations: how long and how often these blocks are are, and what you can possibly do with them. Like money, you can’t properly manage the time you have if you don’t know exactly how much you have to spend.

Plan out a flexible study schedule.

Now is when you put all of it together. If you have been following along, you will now have a solid grasp of when all your assignments are due and of how much free time you will have every week. Using your weekly schedule against your assignment calendar,  you should be devise a tentative study schedule.This schedule should map out roughly when you should complete your assignments or study for exams, throughout the coming weeks. Taking each schedule into account, you should start figuring out when you should be working on particular readings or assignments and how you can manage your time to do so.

During this, it’s absolutely crucial that you are honest with yourself about:

1- how much time you have available
2- how much work you have to do
3- how much time it actually takes you complete certain tasks.

I’ve written earlier posts that discuss why knowing how much time you have is important, and why being honest with yourself is even more so.

All this being said, the point of this whole exercise is to organize your time and, at the same time, spend them as productively as possible. Success throughout the semester, application cycle, and life in general rest on this almost completely. But, don’t be (too) overwhelmed by it. Be flexible with your time– unexpected things happen so wiggle room should always be made to accommodate such things and, of course, to enjoy them.

Stefanie Arr

Do’s and Don’ts of Transfer Essays.

Do's and Don'ts of Transfer Essays. (From josef.stuefer on Flickr.)

Writing transfer essays can be particularly hard– how do you tell one school why you’re leaving another?

Like “normal” personal statements, your aim is to show how you’re the ideal candidate. But, you also have an additional directive at hand: why you should join yet a different graduating class, as opposed to the one you are already a part of. It then becomes less, “Why X school” and more “Why X school, as opposed to the one you’re in now?

Regardless of what your reasons may be for leaving, writing generically won’t help you– it’ll only seem as though you’re just trying to get the heck out of Dodge, which doesn’t suit your purpose of getting in.

But, rest assured, dear readers: here are some do’s and don’ts to help you on your way to hopefully brighter, greener pastures.

DO: Talk about your your time at your previous school.

Highlight what was positive about your old school– don’t worry, an admissions counselor won’t judge you for leaving. If you really are hard-pressed to the positive about your experience (good thing you’re transferring!) then talk about how much you have grown– what have you come to realize during your experience at your soon-to-be-old school? Growth does include learning what you really want out of your school experience, and learning what kind of environment or program you prefer to be in.

DON’T: Talk trash about your old school.

Even if the campus sucks, the professors are awful, you live with a crap roommate in a room without heat, don’t diss it.  Yes, you may be unhappy with your school experience thus far, but don’t criticize it in your essay– it will only seem negative or even tacky. Talk less about how much the school failed you in whatever way, but talk more about what your needs and wants in your education or ideal campus life.

DO: Talk about how your prospective school will be an ideal fit for you.

“Why do you want to attend this school?” This question certainly sounds familiar, but it can be answered doubly now that you have spent sometime elsewhere. Why does this school appeal to you so much more than your current one? Consider what your prospective school offers, in comparison to your school now– what attracts you the most? Is its campus life? Or its programs of study? Talk about specifics.

DON’T: Mention how you wish you applied there/attended in the first place. (Or, how you wish you were admitted the first time around.)

Allusions to any of these will make you sounding regretful or even bitter, which will only take away from your essay. Through your personal statement, you should aim to sound positive and hopeful, as a promising future student who looks forward to advancing your education. Don’t demean your previous decision (or, worse, the decision of the previous admissions counselor) by presenting them in a bad light– talk instead about what you plan to do in the future.

DO: Talk about what you hope to accomplish at your new school.

When transferring, you have to a do a bit of homework. Investigate what programs are offered and what their campus life is actually like. Consider what their student body is like; what could you bring to the table? If there is a particular program you are interested in, talk about why. If there is a particular professor you want to study under: why, and how come? Then, what could you provide for the department or research team? If you’re interested in athletics, a similar line of questions are also pertinent. Talk about not only why you want to be there, but what you plan to do once you are there– how will you make the most of this school, and how will the school make the most of you?


What is your New Year’s resolution?

Ahh, the beginning of the year.

Now that the holiday season is over and you’ve picked out the last piece of confetti from your hair, it’s time to start enacting your New Year’s resolutions, for real.

For most, resolutions are some variant of “lose weight and/or make more money” all of which make sense, of course. For even more of you, your resolution may be to improve your grades, be less stressed out, or to get into your dream school.

But, with each resolution, one question always remains:  Am I really going to stick with these resolutions this year?

Resolutions can be complicated, especially when considering the delicate-yet-often-unfair balance between your work, personal, and academic lives. Do you have the time, energy, and attitude to make these changes?

The new year can be a great time to reflect not only on what you’d like to improve but, most importantly, how you can effectively do so. So, here are a few tips to help you make your resolution stick this time around:

1. Set realistic expectations.

Nothing is more demoralizing than setting lofty goals. Why? Setting unattainable goals are just that– unattainable. Yes, you can vow to improve your test scores by 800% and lose 30 lbs. in a week but the reality is, when these goals aren’t reached, this only amounts to feelings of defeat– and, bam!, there you are, back at square one.

So, how do you combat this?  Think about the things you’d like to change as well as what this realistic change would– and should— look like.

Say, for example, that you’d like to get your grades up– a perfectly reasonable if not encouraged goal to have in mind. But, before you start thinking of how nice summa cum laude would sound, consider you fared last semester. Is this an achievable goal? Instead of aiming for straight A’s across the board, consider aiming for a particular point increase in your GPA. Or, raise the bar for yourself– say, nothing lower than a B. This is especially relevant if you’re facing a particularly difficult course load this semester. Aim for realistic grades within each class instead of demanding perfection across the board. Don’t get me wrong, perfect grades are certainly laudable and encouraged, but don’t set yourself up for defeat if you already know this semester may be incredibly difficult as it is.

In your personal life, setting realistic expectations is just as important.  Don’t focus so much on suddenly trying to become a radically different person from the start. Instead, focus on the particular parts of yourself that you’d like to improve—such as your time management or leadership skills, for some examples—and work on those. Do you want to be more in control of your work load, and have less stress in your life? Think about improving your time management skills. Thinking of changing careers or moving on to the next step in your education? Start doing your research and start thinking concretely about how you can achieve this.

2. Set both specific and general life goals.

Work and academic life involves managing many, many details all the time. So, setting New Year’s resolutions that deal with specific goals—such as working on your final paper at least a week in advance and getting at least 7 hours of sleep every night —is important for making your life more manageable.

But, as every student knows, your life can still be a mess even if you manage some of the details well. This is why the bigger picture is also incredibly important. True, you may have gotten everything done on your task list for a certain day, but you didn’t eat well, you missed a planned night out, and you haven’t slept enough. Your life, in the big picture, can be seriously lacking if you don’t pay attention to what’s going on in the more holistic sense.

Good New Year’s resolutions then focus on both the details and this bigger picture. Set a few goals for what you’d like to experience in your life next semester, this year, and onwards, whether it is to be better rested, in better physical shape, more balanced and less crunched for time.  As time goes on, you should check-in with yourself regularly– I like to on the first day of each month– and see how you’re doing: Do you feel more in control of your time? Balanced?  How have you been treating your body? Are you well-rested? If not, start setting smaller, specific goals to help you achieve these larger ones.

3. Focus on the means, not just the ends.

Sometimes, focusing only on the end result can be just as self-sabotaging as lofty goals. Why? Many of these goals are not immediately attainable but instead are true works in progress, and focusing too much on its end can lead to impatience… and possibly premature disappointment.

One of the best ways to set– and keep–New Year’s resolutions is to focus on the means of getting to where you want to be, not just on why you haven’t arrived there yet.  If you’d like to reduce your stress, focus on incorporating stress-reducing activities into your routine (exercising for 30 minutes each day, for example) as well as getting your work done in time. If you’re aiming to improve your grades, consider developing a better rapport with your professor on top of studying harder. Developing the ability to make better choices is just as important as the choices themselves.

What are your New Year’s resolutions? And, how are you working on them? Let me know in the comments!

Stefanie Arr

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.