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Learn some simple new writing tools

Here’s a hammer, screwdriver, and a few other simple tools

This is

a set of five straightforward tools you can use to make your essay better, quickly.

Do this because

why not start easy?! With these tools, you’ll improve your writing with little effort.

Now, do this


People have names. Use them.

How’s this for the start of an essay:

“I don’t know how to fly fish.”

“It’s easy, it’s flicking a stick with string into water,” my friend jibed. He wanted me to help him start a fly-fishing club and teach others at school, but I had to learn first.

Not bad. But watch what happens when the friend has a name:

“Jack, I don’t know how to fly fish.”

“It’s easy, it’s flicking a stick with string into water,” Jack jibed. He wanted me to help him start a fly-fishing club and teach others at school, but I had to learn first.

By giving people names, you’ll make your essay more personal. You’ll also make it easier to manage if you have several other people in your essay.

Go through your essay top-to-bottom and give people names.


Locate in time and space.

Do you think an admissions officer may be concerned about this sentence:

I hit a boy with a bat after he said “short girls can’t play baseball.”

Hmmm. When did this happen? Is this girl violent? Do we want her on our campus?

What about this sentence:

I hit a boy with a bat in the second grade after he said “short girls can’t play baseball.”

Ohhhhh…in the second grade. Well, that’s ok (as long as she isn’t still hitting boys with bats!).

Be sure to let your reader know when events are taking place in your story. There are many ways to do this:

  • In the second grade…
  • When I was twelve…
  • The summer before junior year…
  • A month later…
  • As soon as we got home…

Use these simple phrases to make it easy for your reader to follow your story. Remember, they don’t know when these events happened.

Does it matter where the story is taking place? Sometimes. We don’t have a hard and fast rule for this, but as you’re telling your story ask yourself whether the location matters and, if it does, how much detail about the location will make a difference.

For some stories, the place is central (a trip to Italy, climbing the chimney of your house), while for others it just doesn’t matter.

Go through your essay top-to-bottom and make sure every event is located in time and, where needed, in space.


    Get rid of junk words and phrases.


    Most people empty words and phrases into their writing without realizing it. These add nothing, and make the writing less clear. Go on a hunt for junk words and phrases.

    Delete these junk words and phrases
    Common words that can be cut without making a difference include

    • However
    • Anyway
    • So
    • Then
    • That
    • Because
    • Very
    • Really
    • (Would) always
    • Meanwhile
    • About
    • Even

    Phrases that usually add nothing:

    • I think/believe that
    • As it were
    • In any case
    • From my perspective
    • I decided to
    • I remembered
    • One time/there was a time when
    • The reason that/why
    • I will always cherish the memories of

    Look at each word and phrase in your essay. There probably are some (maybe many) that can be taken out without changing the meaning at all. These are just samples.

    We aren’t saying never use these words and phrases; be intentional if you do. In the future, you’ll start to use these less and less.

    Go through your essay top-to-bottom hunting down and deleting every junk word or phrase.


    What your English teachers maybe didn’t tell you about adjectives and adverbs.


    Adjectives and adverbs are overused. They can make your essay less readable and can reduce the power of your writing. Sometimes, writers use so many adjectives and adverbs that they overwhelm the reader.

    Go through your essay and challenge each adjective and adverb. They are important parts of speech, and you’ll have some. Be sure you don’t have too many.

      Let's start with adverbs, using them like Stephen King
      Here’s what Stephen King says about adverbs:

      “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day…fifty the day after that…and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s–GASP!!–too late.”

      In other words, better safe than sorry. Make every adverb fight for its right to be in your sentence. Here’s some tips:

      • If the sentence means the same with or without the adverb, delete it.
      • If the adverb is redundant (“he smiled happily”), delete it.
      • If an adverb ends in –ly (quickly, sadly, scarily, etc.), do everything you can to delete it.

      Sometimes adverbs convey information that your reader needs. Adverbs can be important when you want to communicate:

      • Time (yesterday I went to the store; I understood later)
      • Place (I like to play outside; I see opportunities everywhere)
      • Extent (I was almost ready to take the lead; I was so tired I had to sleep)

      Stephen King’s The Shining has 2500 adverbs (including ones like outside, later, etc), or one every 80 words. At that rate, your 650-word common application essay would have about 8 adverbs.

      For -ly adverbs, aim for no more than 4 in your Common Application essay.


      To learn more about adverbs, read:

      Grammar Girl’s How to Eliminate Adverbs

      Brainpicking’s Stephen King on Writing, Fear, and the Atrocity of Adverbs



      And now, adjectives, learning from Mark Twain
      Adjectives don’t have as bad a rep as adverbs, but people (especially young writers) tend to overuse them.

      Let’s go to Mark Twain for some insight. This is from a letter he wrote to a student:

      “I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”

      We don’t have guidelines for adjectives the way we do for adverbs. Just hunt them down and make each one fight for the right to be in your essay.

      To learn more about adjectives, read:

      Kill Your Adjectives — Well, Most of Them by Leah McClellan



      Can you tell the difference?
       Now, here’s the beginning of this section, enhanced with adverbs and adjectives. Can you tell the difference?

      Highly overrated!

      Adjectives and adverbs are badly and frequently overused. They can make your critical essay less readable, and can greatly reduce the inspiring power of your well-thought-out words. Sometimes, young or inexperienced writers use so many misplaced adjectives and inappropriate adverbs that they totally overwhelm the unsuspecting reader.

      Carefully and repeatedly go through your entire essay and vigorously challenge each questionable adjective and sketchy adverb. They are incredibly important parts of everyday speech, and you’ll undoubtedly have some. Be absolutely, positively sure you don’t have too, too many.

      The clean version is 61 words. The version with adjectives and adverbs is 89 words and difficult to read.

      Go through your essay top-to-bottom hunting down every adverb, and then every adjective. Make them fight for their right to be in your essay!


      Keeping it personal: avoiding the generic you.

      You know when you’re lost in the desert, and vultures are circling overhead, and you’re out of water and food, and all you can do is hope for the best?

      No. No, you don’t. You don’t know that at all.

      (OK, if you do, please email us at

      But, we bet you don’t. When people use ‘you’ instead of ‘I’ or ‘we’ all sorts of weird things start to happen. They may not have that experience you have. They may not agree with you. They may think you’re being presumptuous.

      Here are more realistic examples of the generic you:

      When you don’t know what to do sometimes you want to give up
      When I don’t know what to do sometimes I want to give up.

      It’s important for you to practice scales if you want to play in the jazz band
      It’s important for me to practice scales if I want to play in the jazz band.

      Go through your essay top-to-bottom and make any generic you statement personal.


        Now, read your essay.

        That’s all. Just read it. And, notice the before-and-after difference.

        If you didn’t find much in your passes, it may be just a bit better. But often, it these simple tools make a world of difference.


        You're ready to move on when

        • You have taken a top-to-bottom pass through your essay with each of the five tools, deleting anything you could.
        • You read your essay after using the tools.
        These are now part of your toolkit and you may use them again as you work on your essay.