Tag Archives: essay writing

How to write without self-consciousness.

Writing without self-consciousness. (From J. Paxon Reyes on Flickr.)

In my last post, I covered writer’s block, reasons why it occurs, and how to beat it when it does. Whether it’s disorganization,  difficulty with topic formulation, or sheer laziness (hey, it happens), I covered a number of remedies on how to combat it.

Sometimes, however, a writing assignment could be so daunting that the task itself is what’s keeping you from writing and from getting it done. It’s normal to get nervous when a big assignment is due– particularly if it’s a requirement to graduate, part of an incredibly hard course, or if it was assigned by a notoriously difficult teacher. Often, this can manifest in negative feelings about your own writing or even about writing itself:

“I’m not really much of a writer.”

“My writing just isn’t good enough.”

“I hate writing; I suck at it.”

I’ve heard many variations of these thoughts over the years. This usually stems from feeling apprehensive about the writing process. But, most often, it arises out of self-consciousness and anxiety over the reader and his/her potential response.

It is understandable to feel this way– writing can be a very scary thing. But, you don’t have to feel overwhelmed; with some reassessment and planning, you can overcome feeling self-conscious about your work. Here are a few ways you can combat self-doubt and write without hang-ups.

  • Get your facts straight.

As with speaking, writing comes a lot easier–and a lot less self-consciously– if you have full understanding of what you’re going to say as well as how you will say it. As any one who has done public speaking would know, it’s infinitely more nerve-wracking to speak on the spot than to speak after you’ve had time to fully prepare yourself. So, to build confidence before taking on your next writing assignment,  you need to strategize and plan ahead. Use brainstorming tools to formulate topic ideas. When you have a topic, do your research. Create an outline. Take full command of the information at hand– sketch out your ideas and fully digest the material you are using. Make yourself comfortable with the information– the more comfortable you are with the task at hand, the more confident you’ll feel writing about it.

  • Turn the spotlight away from you and onto your work.

Whenever you write, you’re expected to tell a story, and to tell it well; this is what your professors expect of you, what readers expect of novelists, and even what you expect of me. Because of this, subconsciously, you might feel as though you’re being judged– that, whatever you produce, is a reflection of you. To some extent, this is true; those working on personal statements, for instance, can understand how this works. However, writing isn’t about you– writing serves a purpose, to divulge information in a well-reasoned manner with intention. While, yes, you are responsible for creating good work, you yourself are not the words on your screen. It is important to remember this difference, especially when that pesky self-doubt starts to rear its ugly head; it’s all about the work itself. So, if you’re feel stuck or lost while writing, don’t turn the scrutiny towards yourself–  take a step back and focus on the work and the assignment. You are not what you write.

  • Only edit when you’re editing.

It’s hard not to self-edit– trust me, I know. I make a living by critiquing other people’s work so it’s incredibly hard not to second-guess my usage of punctuation and panic over tense agreement. (And, don’t even get me started about word choice– my inner monologues often sound like this.)  But, editing while you’re writing is like burning a bridge on one end while you’re still building the other side; you simply can’t make progress while looking fearfully (or, in this case, critically) behind you. Just getting your thoughts down on paper is hard enough, so don’t make the process anymore difficult for yourself. So, get the words out however you can and save the self-critiquing  for later. Don’t hold yourself back; the ability to write freely and easily comes only when you allow yourself to let go. When your self-editor tries to sneak in while you’re writing, point to the door and just write. Once your draft is completed, you then can look it over and edit to your heart’s content (reason #34,382,370 why time management is key) but not until after the fact.

Of course, these are all hard habits to break; I’ll admit that I’m still working on some of these myself. But, like all efforts to improve writing skills, with consistent and continual practice, it can be done and the boost in confidence is totally worth it.

How to beat writer’s block.

Writer’s block.

We’ve all suffered from it. I certainly have and, at some point in time, I’m sure you have as well. Plenty of famous authors have succumbed to it, also. It’s an affliction common to both creative and academic writers alike.

There are many reasons to writer’s block occurs, and nearly just as many strategies to overcome or at least circumvent it. This week, I will cover those particular to academic writing, by going over scenarios that all students have found themselves in. By learning what to handle these kinds of situations, you can unplug the stopper, unblock your writing, and get yourself going again.

You’ve started writing your paper, but you don’t really know where you’re going with it.

This is probably the most common of writing blockages. You’re sitting at your computer starting your paper when you realize, “Crap, I don’t even know what I’m saying.”

This lost feeling is often the symptom of disorganization. I’ve talked about the importance of outlining in some of my posts on personal statements, but it’s just as relevant here as well. When writing an essay or paper, you need to devise a convincing argument– a thesis that is strong from beginning to end, and is presented and explained thoroughly and clearly. One of the ways to ensure this is by creating an outline, so that you can create a framework to build your argument upon.

But, in terms of defeating writer’s block, outlining helps clarify your own thought process. Staring at pages of academic research, peer-reviewed journals, and a blank word document will cause anyone to go into a foggy, non-writing trance. But, realizing that your thesis can be deduced to a basic logical structure, it can ease some of your anxiety. With a well-devised outline, you can see your argument unfold which, in effect, will help you see exactly where you should be going.

You have a topic, but you hate it.

The writing assignments that you dislike are some of the most difficult ones to write– this much is true. Whether you find the topic to be boring, the content disagreeable, or you just don’t understand the material, you have your reasons to dislike the assignment given, all of which are hard to surmount.

Unfortunately, there’s no way out of doing what is asked of you. Sorry, but there’s no way out of doing the work. That being said, you can get yourself through it.

As I have said earlier, you should aim for a topic that addresses the overall theme of the course– what does the professor want you to come away from course with? What major themes or ties can be drawn through the material? If you’re still having difficulty, then consider this: What aspect of the material did you like the best? Or, what can you at least explain the best?

If you’re still deep in trouble, try speaking to your professor or, at the very least, your TA. (This is when having good time management skills will come in handy.) If you are having trouble finding a topic that interests you, they should also be able to offer suggestions. However, if you’re you’re having difficulty with the material itself, you’re experiencing more than writer’s block, and should look to outside help. If this is the case, you must speak to your professor– not only so he/she could understand your predicament but also to better your own understanding of the task at hand. If for whatever reason they aren’t helpful to you (and they really should be if they’re worth their salt), try talking to your classmates. Or, find someone who has taken this class before. Even try speaking to your librarian. Your goal should be to reach out to someone who can give you some guidance– if you’re truly lost in the course, you need to throw out a lifeline. If you find yourself struggling with the material, it will make the writing process that much harder. Do everything you can to find someone to help you– most schools have some sort of advising or tutoring program that you can turn to for help, as well.

You just don’t want to write. 

Well, sorry to break it to you. There’s no real way to get out of this aside from taking an incomplete, dropping the course, or, worst of all, failing it outright.  As fatalistic as it sounds, even if you don’t want to write, you’ll have to resign yourself to the task eventually.

But, sometimes, this extreme dislike is often masking some other problem– do you not want to write because you don’t know how to engage the topic? Or do you not want to write because you don’t understand the material fully? Or, alternatively, do you just not want to do it because you’d rather play Words with Friends? Be honest with yourself. If you’re having difficulties engaging with the material or understanding the assignment, follow what I said above. Often, writer’s block emerges when you are experiencing some sort of difficulty with the assignment, so do a bit of a self-check up. Here, brushing up on your outline will help you figure what kinks need to be worked out– it will help you see where the fogginess is coming from. Talking to others, like your professor or classmates, will help as well– some outside feedback may just be what you need. Try to figure where this writing malaise is coming from; chances are it’s from being overwhelmed by one of the issues I’ve stated above.

But, if you don’t want to write simply because you “just don’t want to,” then you’ll have to get past that. There’s no easy way around it. Get off Facebook, Twitter, this blog, whatever. If need be, disable your Internet connection– save all your articles and research so you can work offline to avoid distractions. Do whatever it takes for you to stop procrastinating and get motivated.  In this case, talking to others may not be the best idea; you can’t afford yourself any further time away from doing what needs to get done. You might not like writing, I understand that. You might be one of those people who just don’t feel “right” in academia– I understand that as well. However, there is no salve or “quick-fix” to getting out of doing the work. (Or at least moral ones anyway, and I’m certainly NOT suggesting those by any means!) And, spending time away from the assignment is only putting off the inevitable which, as time goes on, will only grow in its dreadfulness. So, do yourself a favor and just get it over with. Stretch, go for a short run, take a shower, whatever– then, grit your teeth and rip the bandaid off and just do it. Trust me, you’ll be happier once it’s done.

How to improve your writing.

Last week, I covered how to develop a successful essay topic, from the beginning, by investigating your interests.

A great admission essay doesn’t come from thin air– not only do you have to cultivate great material to later write about, but you also have to develop the skills to do so.

As I said in my last post, good writing comes with persistence. Meaning, in order to write well, you have to do more than just memorize grammar and syntax rules. Improving your writing is not an end-product in itself but instead a developing process. To continuously improve, you have to continuously practice. 

So, here’s how to practice, and how to improve, your writing:

Read discerningly and critically.

Yes, to improve your writing, you need to read more. But, this goes farther than just reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo while curled up on the couch. You have to read actively. Active reading is a bit like studying–  you are reading more than just for what’s on the page, but to absorb the material. You are to analyze what is being said, and how it’s being said. Rather than letting the material wash over you passively, you have to engage with what you’re reading, and think about it critically. It doesn’t matter if it’s Thomas Pynchon, Tom Clancy, or the New York Times— think about what’s being presented to you. What is being said? Carefully consider the writer’s style– what is being done, exactly? How is this story being told to you?

Then, consider your own interaction with the material– is this story being told well? Is the writing effective in telling this story? What is attractive or unattractive about what is being said? What do you like or dislike about what the writer is doing?

Take careful note of what you like– and don’t like– about the material.  Analyzing critically will help you develop your own style through comparison. So,  consider your answers to the last line of questions I posed– what would you do differently? What do you agree with, in terms of phrasing, word choice, or content?

Interact with your own writing.

Now, pose the same sort of questions I’ve raised above to your own writing. Dig up old written assignments and essays– anything you’ve written in the last year or so. Then, critique it: did the story come through as you had intended? What could have been improved? Are you happy the way it turned out? What should be changed or remain the same? Was your story told successfully and effectively? In terms of phrasing and style, what was successful and needs some improvement? Take note of what worked and what didn’t and, most importantly, why that is the case. It is also helpful to look over any written work that had already been graded– you can definitely take cues from a professor or teacher in your self-analysis.

When you review work from a considerable time ago, you are reconsidering your writing with a more objective, critical eye. You are likely to find wording or phrasing issues or other mistakes that you may have missed the first time around. You are also likely to find phrasing or styling that worked then and continue to work now. Yes, you can be your own worse critic, so be sure not to beat yourself up too much; this is all part of the improvement process. By highlighting the best and worst aspects of your writing, you stand to improve on both of these points– to be mindful of the mistakes and to continue doing what works.

Practice revision.

Aside from reading outside work and your own work more critically, you must also hone your own writing and editing skills. To become a more discerning writer, you must be in-tune with what makes for effective writing and what doesn’t, so that you can be in a better position to do so yourself. But, while reading critically is important, knowing what to do about it is absolutely crucial. This is when revision comes in.

Revision can be a difficult exercise but, by reading critically, you’re already halfway there. Consider some of the questions I’ve said above– namely, the ones asking where you (or anyone else) could improve on effectiveness. Then, as a starting exercise, try acting on these suggestions to yourself– rewrite these points as you feel they should have been written in the first place. (This is where looking over your old, graded materials comes in handy; your teacher has ideally earmarked what needs to be changed already.)

When practicing revision, you’re developing your own keen senses of what works within writing and what doesn’t. Whether it’s within your own writing or someone else’s, practicing revising and rewriting skills is key to developing your own “nose” for good writing.  Likewise, it helps to develop the grounds for your own self-improvement.  Especially in your own work, through revision, you are in effect improving your own writing literally– you are learning from the very mistakes you made by learning how to directly fix them. Again, you can be your own worst critic but it can be a very satisfying experience, if you make it one.

Write more, and write often.

Of course, this is the part you’ve been waiting for. The best way to truly exercise these developing skills is, naturally, to do some more writing yourself.

Write whenever you can. It doesn’t really matter about what, so long as there is a discernible purpose to what you’re trying to get across– a story to tell or an argument to make. Writing for practice doesn’t have be submitted for a grade or even to the general public in any way, so you have pretty wide range of possibilities to use. If you find yourself stuck, you can use some journalism exercises as good jump-off points or “personal assignments” to get you started. One helpful exercise is to write reviews– of anything, even for things or events that aren’t real.  Or, as a journalism professor once told me, you can write mock-obituaries for celebrities, a fun (if not mildly morbid) writing exercise. In terms of how you do it, that is up to you as well. I myself like to carry a notebook around and just jot things down as they come, but do whatever feels comfortable for you. (If you’re strictly digital, Evernote is an amazing tool.)  You can keep a private journal or even start a blog.  Of course, putting these skills into practice can be difficult, yes. But, like running or an exercise routine, it gets much easier with time. And, just like exercise, it’s not so important when, or how you do it, as much is it is important you do it well, mindfully, and consistently.






How to become an interesting student.

How to become an interesting student. (By AMagill on Flickr.)

Last week, I was invited to lead a college essay writing workshop for Camp G.O.A.L.S. for Girls, an incredible program dedicated to high school girls pursuing math and science degrees.

The students in attendance were between the ages of 13 and 16. Most were in the very beginning stages of the admissions process for next cycle but others were definitely on the younger side of my usual student pool. While college admissions requires plenty of time management and diligent preparation, it was almost too early for some of these girls to work on their essays proper. But, these highly driven underclassmen weren’t going to let me get away scot-free. After a break, I was approached by a freshman with a great question: “What can we [underclassmen] do to prepare for a great college essay now?”

Of course, there are a number of immediate answers that come to mind. Successful writing skills– adept knowledge of writing mechanics, style, and grammar– come with practice and persistence, which students of any and all ages should be conscious of. (It also helps if you follow this blog!) Likewise, choosing an appropriate topic for your essay comes through careful consideration and a thoughtful process of elimination. But, the question posed was begging for an answer that is even deeper than all this; after all, several of the attendees had only just begun high school. How does one really develop great potential topics to begin with? How do you create them? In other words:

How do you become an interesting student?

While we all like the preternatural-prodigy story– where magnetism and intriguing qualities are seemingly innate and one is simply born interesting– these attributes are often discovered and, later, developed and cultivated. Sure, there are some who are born with the knowledge of what they like, the ability to be good at it, and the all-around support system to nurture it, from the beginning. But most have to investigate at least one if not all three of these qualities.These students are no exception. These particular girls are at beginning of their academic careers and are now forming these interests of their own– ones that will likely permeate through to their specialties and professions. But, through careful search, dedicated practice, and active involvement in these interests, they are on their way to not only becoming dedicated, driven students, but genuinely interesting ones at that.

How does this work? Well, here are three steps to do so.

1. Find out what you like (or don’t like).

Finding out what you like is critical to being an interesting student. How?

When you find something you like, you develop a potential genuine interest. These potential interests are kernels of promising growth that can possibly be expanded upon and developed fully into, well, a genuine one. Things you like tend to become things you care about– qualities that will enhance your experience and, in effect, your personality. Genuine interests, in turn, are what make you interesting.

To find what you like, you have to search, to really explore. Keep your ears and eyes open for whatever it is that grabs your attention. And, when they do hold your attention, investigate them! Find out what it is that you like about it and, when you do, keep doing it. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. If you realize after trying it a few times that you don’t like it, don’t fret– narrowing down these potentials is as much a part of this investigative process as it is finding that sweet spot to begin with.

These girls, by participating in this event, have at the very least least started the search process and are actively honing in on what it is they do like, whether it is medicine, engineering, computer science, or robotics (!). These interests are informing their high school experience and, in turn, their own unique personalities, allowing them to differentiate themselves from the rest. Their pursuit of what interests them are what makes them interesting.

2. Stick with it.

Following what I said above, you’re more likely to follow through with something you like than you would with something you don’t. That being said, once you do find something you like, you have to solidify that commitment.

Immersion learning is the best method of learning a language and the same is true for learning a new skill or discipline. Athletes practice during the on- and off-season to keep their minds and bodies in prime shape for competition, year-round and at all times. Likewise, students of every discipline must keep themselves sharp by consistent practice and dedication.Through this kind of persistence, interests become specialties and areas of expertise.

How does this happen? Simply put, people pursue what they like. When you enjoy something, you’re that much likely to remain committed to it. Being immersed in something you like is definitely a lot more pleasurable than being mired in something you don’t.

From this kind of commitment, your personal expertise and knowledge grows– after all, there is a reason that people tend to be good at the things that they happen to like. And, with intimate knowledge comes the ability to communicate freely and confidently about these interests. The ability to relay this interest to others –friends, teachers, admissions counselors, and professors alike– is what makes you interesting to them in the first place.

These students, by their own admission, are completely dedicated to their academic pursuits. They eat, breathe, and sleep math and science. Their attendance clearly spoke of this dedication but I was continually told of their active participation in other areas relating to their individual interests, from building computers for charity organizations to volunteering in projects dedicated to environmental conservation and sustainability. They not only found what they liked, but they involved themselves in everything they could to further themselves within it, and did so tenaciously. And, having done so, they were able to speak confidently about what their passions and drew me in, even as a decidedly “non-math” outsider. Their dogged interest interested me.

3. Cultivate it.

Aside from finding that thing you like and dedicating yourself to it, you have to allow it to grow. This all is a continual process that needs to be fostered by not only you, but by others as well.

Involve your peers in your interests. More likely than not, there will be some sort of club or organization devoted to this recently discovered interest. If there isn’t, then this is an opportunity to make a space for yourself and those like you to join forces– chances remain high that you are not the only one interested in this particular thing, nor will you be the last one to be. Involving others in your interests also creates fertile, creative ground to explore and investigate them further. The best and most creative ideas often come from such collaboration, especially when new territories are concerned. This will also help foster greater dedication; as any fitness nut or otherwise athletic person will tell you, it is easier to retain — and keep!– commitment when others are joined in with you.

The G.O.A.L.S for Girls campers certainly inspired each other– the camp comprised of a competitive pool of girls with similar interests and background, working and learning together for six weeks. Surely, a camp full of high school girls can make for an interesting experience in and of itself (I can definitely attest to that from my own experience, oh-so-long ago) but the opportunities like this to inspire and challenge yourself and others in a fertile environment is critical to the success and longevity of these interests.

Similarly, these interests need to be nurtured by you and those like you, first and foremost, but they also need to be nurtured by others with greater and more expansive knowledge on the subject as well. Aside from securing letters of recommendation in the future, involving teachers, professors, and organizers will also allow you to delve deeper and become especially good at them. Self-teaching can certainly go far but having guidance will help you not only develop your skills even farther, but also cultivate your own interest level, in both the thing itself and in your own “interestingness.” Enhancing your own understanding will doubly enhance your own experience within and outside of this process– thereby make your experience, your personality, and, by extension, you that much more interesting as a whole.

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?


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.

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

Application tips, the Black Friday edition.

Ah, Thanksgiving. Its passing signifies so many things. The start of the Christmas shopping (or groaning) season, winter weight gain, basketball, and admissions. Thanksgiving is often considered the unofficial admissions deadline for the following fall semester. While most early-action and early-decision deadlines have ended already (most early deadlines are either October 15th or November 15th), the ever-growing application rate has only exacerbated the need to submit applications early and “go complete” as soon as possible.

So, now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, it’s crunch-time.

I’ve gotten many emails from students, all under varying degrees of duress: from those who have only very recently decided to apply to school, to those who are chewing their nails before hitting “submit”. To help staunch your panic, here are tips to help you survive this season.

If you’re applying this cycle… and breaking a sweat about hitting “submit”.

You’ve gotten your test scores back, your transcripts have been sent, and your letter writers have sent in their recommendations. Now, you’re tying up loose ends: editing and proofreading your addendum, your diversity statement, your resume, and, most important of all, your personal statement.  You’ve drafted and re-drafted, and have finely honed your writing materials to such a degree, you can’t possibly add or subtract anymore. Everything is done… right?

First off, it’s completely understandable to have less-than-itchy trigger fingers. You are only beginning on a process whose end-result could have serious, life-altering effects. So, yes, stress is to be expected.

If you have most of the necessary components in line– your transcripts, letters of recommendation, and test scores– and are only working on your own parts, you can breathe a little easier. Unreliable letter writers and unhelpful university policies can be the cause of a huge amount of stress; so, if you were able to get past those in good time, congratulations. You have gotten the relatively uncontrollable parts of your application out of the way, so relish in the fact that your application rests now on you, not on outside circumstances.

At the same time, you can’t prevent yourself from letting go. You are your own worst critic and, at times, your own worst slave-driver. So, don’t beat yourself up and nit-pick your application to death– doing so will only allow more and more time to pass.

To ensure that you’re not holding yourself back, entrust your written application materials with someone else. Whether it be with an editor, your advisor, a professor, or even a close friend. Get another set of eyes to look at what you have written so far and give you honest, reliable feedback. Ask them: Does your writing need further tweaking? Are your statements concise, well-written, and well-argued? Does your resume make a positive impact? Your reader of choice should be able to give you an accurate assessment of your work as it stands and tell you whether you can send it in, or need to work on it a bit more. That being said, they should be able to tell you if you’re almost there or are ready to go– and, chances are, you may be that much closer to the latter than you think. So, listen to their advice; if you have chosen your reader carefully, they are usually right.

If you’re applying this cycle… and haven’t started your application yet.

These kinds of emails are certainly the most panic-stricken ones, to say the least. You’ve decided, at the last minute, that you want to apply and give it your best shot. Well, here’s the deal.

The application process is an arduous one, requiring a lot of preparation, time, and, of course, work. If you have read the above, you will find that the application packet entails the following:

  • The application form. Yes, it’s a form but a long, often tedious form.
  • Transcripts. Depending on the school, this can be an easy or mindbogglingly difficult task. Also, be mindful of processing times of both the school and the admissions board.
  • Letters of Recommendation. These will have to be completed by either your professors, advisors, or (if you have been out of school for some time) employers. This could mean tracking down someone you haven’t worked with or seen in some time and asking them to complete a major aspect of your application on their own time. The obvious potential issues are obvious.

These, of course, are not considering your own parts of the application– you will still have to submit a personal statement and a resume. And, you will also have to consider supplementing your application with an addendum or diversity statement– additional materials that are not necessary but, if needed, are in fact additional work for you to consider.

I’m a big proponent for optimism and I certainly don’t mean to discourage you. However, you do have some serious thinking to do.

Will you realistically have enough time to complete these tasks? Consider your work/school/personal schedule and situation. Can you feasibly do this? If you feel that you may not be able to, then you have your answer. Wait this cycle out and try next time– you’ll be better prepared and will be more successful than this go-around, guaranteed.

If you feel that you could very well pull it off, ask yourself: Will rushing have a detrimental effect on my application? Rushing to get your application in and getting dinged the first time around is no better than waiting until next year and trying with a better hand.

I understand having your heart set on getting that degree or attending that particular school. But, if you are just deciding to do so now, you should give it some more thought. If you’re worried about not being able to do it next time around, then consider the time involved– if you can’t apply by next cycle, then will you be able to even attend next fall?

You’re making some pretty big decisions very quickly. And, if you’re finding yourself scrambling to make this happen, you could very well be forcing yourself to make these huge decisions even more quickly which can be problematic. Take some time and think: Can you do this, or should you wait? Is this for you? Is this a fluke, a rash decision? Is this even possible? Be honest with yourself.Think very, very carefully and be mindful of your answers– yes, these are big things which is precisely why you need to be slow and steady in your decision making.

How to write a diversity statement.

How to write a diversity statement. (From rutlo on Flickr.)

Last week, I covered what a diversity statement is and how to decide whether a diversity statement is right for you. Now, for those of you who will be writing one, I will cover how to do it.

Generally speaking, your diversity statement should be written very much like your personal statement. However, the approach you will take will differ slightly.

In your personal statement, you are presenting yourself to the admissions counselor as an ideal candidate for your prospective school. You are to show them how your experience is indicative of your qualities and drive and how these traits are proof of how you’ll succeed, at school and in the future. These experiences can be either personal or professional, but, either way they have to somehow exemplify your abilities as a prospective student.

With your diversity statement, you have to provide yet further examples of your experience, and talk about how these have made you a mature, more diverse person. Meaning, you will have to discuss your personal background and how this has affected you. Some people talk about the diversity statement being akin to an adversity statement, but that’s not necessarily the case– it doesn’t have to necessarily be about obstacles. However, it does have to involve is your personal experience, and how this has given you a different or more diverse perspective than most other students.

Note the marked differences between these two types of statements.

While both the personal statement and diversity statement serve the same purpose– to shed more light on your personality for the admissions committee–  they differ in the manner in which they do that.

Like any writing task, you should start with a brainstorming session. However, the diversity statement can be much more, well, personal than the personal statement– as such, your brainstorming should naturally be different along these lines as well. In last week’s post, I wrote some basic questions you should ask yourself when considering whether to write a diversity statement or not. Your brainstorming should stem from the answers from these questions.

Once you have narrowed it down to one– or even a few– topic ideas, start outlining. The only way to test drive the solidity of a possible argument is to outline it; if you can come up with enough material to develop your argument from start to finish, think about it a bit further and consider using this as a viable topic. If you find yourself scrambling to fill out this outline, then drop it.

Because of the often deeply personal nature of diversity statements, you will have to spend a fair amount of time on this. Granted, the word-count for a diversity statement is not nearly as much as a personal statement. (Personal statements should be about 2 pages, double-spaced with reasonable font and margin sizes, while diversity statement should be about a page, page and a half, tops.) However, the diversity statement does needs extra consideration– certainly more thought than, say, an addendum. Chances are, your diversity statement will be dealing with some pretty sensitive issues. Take time and precaution with how you treat your topic, as failing to do so can turn an otherwise compelling and moving statement into something trivial or, even worse, bad.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:


  • …be antagonistic. Being critical of greater social and cultural forces is one thing, but using your diversity statement as a soapbox is another.
  • …throw yourself a pity party.  Admissions counselors want to see how you’ve matured and grown. Don’t trivialize yourself by coming off as if you’re complaining or whining.
  • …blame others. Instead of pointing fingers at who or what may have complicated your background, talk about how these things have changed you for the better. Playing the blame game will only make you seem immature and close-minded.
  • …talk about “would have, should have, could have”. Your life, up to this point, is what it is. Take ownership of that, and talk about the past in how it reflects your present and your future, but don’t talk about rewriting anything. Talking about ” what if”s can be a waste of time and, in this case, precious word-count.

Instead, DO:

  • …talk about how your life has changed because of your experience. Admissions counselors want to know the level of maturity and self-confidence you will bring to the admitted class but they also want to know how you have grown to achieve that. Shed light on how you’ve grown and developed into the person you are now, at the precipice of entering into a new degree-track.
  • …use some humor, but tastefully. You can have a healthy sense of humor about your background– it doesn’t have to be all gloom-and-doom. However, don’t be crass, crude, or morbid. That can be a party and application killer. So, don’t be that guy.
  • …talk about the positive aspects of your experience. What good came from your diverse background? What are you grateful for?
  • …draw upon your personal statement or letters of recommendation. If there is a common tie between your career goals and what you talk about in your diversity statement, then make that connection. Don’t be afraid to be thematic in your application, stemming connections and ties across your diversity statement, personal statement, letters of recommendation, and even addenda. It would only help to make your application a more solid package.