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Make each word count

Hunt down hidden, horrible sentences

This is

the quick guide to identifying the three most common problems with sentences (that most people don’t even think to look for).

Do this because

your essay will be better. A lot better! And, you’ll find, and fix, some of the writing issues that admissions officers hate (and that, for selective schools, can be enough to put you in the rejected pile).

Now, do this

1

Go on a puppy hunt.

About 70% of icky sentences that students struggle to fix are what we call puppy sentences. When you learn to recognize and fix them, you’ll take an instant leap into more graceful and clear writing.

Now, go on a puppy hunt!
Read through your essay, look for puppy sentences, and mark them (you can color-code them or make a comment).

2

Track down tricky tenses.

About 15% of icky sentences have tense issues. We’re not going in-depth about tenses but here’s a few key points to think about:

 

  • Be consistent and intentional
  • For the most part, keep things that happened in the past in past tense, things in the future in future tense
  • Deep thoughts can be past or present
  • Sometimes you can use tenses for effect — switching into present tense can be powerful, but do it intentionally and carefully — when in doubt, keep it simple [Victor essay example]

Now, track down tricky tenses!
Read through your essay, look for sentences with tense issues, and mark them (you can color-code them or make a comment).    

3

Learn about parallelism.

The final 15% or so of icky sentences have parallelism issues.

Parallelism means that your language lines up. For example, did you notice that the three steps on this page are not parallel?

  1. Go on a puppy hunt.
  2. Track down tricky tenses.
  3. Learn why parallelism is important.

The titles for steps 1 and 2 are playful. Step 3 is boring.

The actions you take in steps 1 and 2 are metaphorical and (we hope) fun. In step 3, you’re going to learn something but not take an action beyond that. 

How about this:

  1. Go on a puppy hunt.
  2. Track down tricky tenses.
  3. Straighten out those sentences.

Now, the three are parallel!

Grammarly has a short, fantastic, clear breakdown of parallelism and we can’t do better — read that!

Now, straighten out those sentences!
Read through your essay, look for sentences with parallelism issues, and mark them (you can color-code them or make a comment).    

4

Buy this book and geek out on language. (Optional!) 

We love this classic book on writing – we’ve become better writers because of it.

Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace / Edition 12

Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup

    You're ready to move on when

    • you’ve watched the video
    • You’ve gone on a puppy hunt, tracked down tricky tenses, and straightened out those sentences.

    Concerned that you didn’t catch everything? All good! This is pro-level writing so just do your best.