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Learn some simple new writing tools

Here’s a socket wrench and awl

This is

a set of five slightly-more-complex but still-straightforward tools you can use to make your essay better, quickly.

Do this because

with these tools, you’ll improve your writing with just a little more effort.

Now, do this

1

I don’t care verbs and phrases.

When we’re talking with one another, most of us toss in lots of extra words and phrases. We don’t notice that we say them and rarely notice when someone else says them. It’s part of spoken language and, when combined with our tone of voice and body language, can help communicate a message.

Writing is different.

I don’t care stories, phrases, and verbs add nothing, but we don’t notice them. We’d say them, so why not write them? We’ll show you why.

    I don't care stories
    Do you know someone who tells rambling stories like this?

    I got hungry after soccer practice which ended at 5:00 or 5:15, I can’t remember. And my mother wasn’t going to be picking me up until later because she had to get my younger sister from her swim meet where we were all hoping she’d medal. But, I couldn’t go that day because I was in soccer practice. I was standing there starving, so I decided I’d go to the store and get something to eat. I was eating my burrito waiting for my mother, when it hit me: I wanted to open a food truck. (98 words)

    Image result for i don't care meme

    And neither does your admissions officer.

    But, they care about this:

    I was inhalling the best buritto I’d ever had when it hit me: I wanted to open a food truck.

     

    To find I don’t care stories:

    1. Go through your essay section-by-section or paragraph-by-paragraph.
    2. Ask yourself if an admissions officer would say I don’t care after reading it.
    3. If they would say I don’t care, you know what to do. (And if you don’t, keep reading. We have more tools coming.)

    If you’re not sure, go back to your intentions. Will it communicate something that matters, help forward the story, or give a bit of flavor to your writing.

    I don't care phrases

    Imagine that these sentences are in a solid college essay. What would you think of these sentences? What might you care about?

    I bought a buritto from the grocery store around the corner.

    I picked up the camera, a birthday present from my uncle, and took her picture.

    My mother, who doesn’t like cats either, asked if I wanted a puppy.

     

    Care about any of these phrases in the sentences?

    …from the grocery store around the corner.

    …a birthday present from my uncle…

    …who doesn’t like cats either…

    Image result for i don't care meme

    Now, there maaaay be an essay where one of these is important to the story. But probably the admissions officer just won’t care.

    To find I don’t care phrases:

    1. As you edit and polish your essay, pay attention to each phrase. Don’t just edit phrases; make sure each one contributes to your story.
    2. Ask yourself if an admissions officer would say I don’t care after reading it.
    3. If they would say I don’t care, you know what to do. (And if you don’t, keep reading. We have more tools coming.)

    If you’re not sure, go back to your intentions. Will it communicate something that matters, help forward the story, or give a bit of flavor to your writing.

    I don't care verbs
    When we’re talking with one another, most of us toss in lots of extra words and phrases. We don’t notice that we say them, and usually don’t notice when someone else says them. It’s part of spoken language.

    Writing is different.

    What do you think of these sentences?

    I decided to go for a run.

    I remember that I liked ketchup as a kid.

    I turned the knob to open the door.

     

    And how about these phrases:

    I decided…

    I remember…

    I turned the knob…

    Image result for i don't care meme

    I don’t care verbs are verbs that get in the way of the action that matters. They don’t add anything except an action that doesn’t matter. Not only does it not matter, it’s usually implied.

    Now look at these sentences:

    I went for a run. (implied: you decided to go running)

    I liked ketchup as a kid. (implied: you remember this)

    I opened the door. (implied: you turned a knob, or did something like this)

     

    To find I don’t care verbs:

    1. As you edit and polish your essay, pay attention to your verbs.
    2. Look for obvious I don’t care verbs like decided or remembered.
    3. Look for phrases with two verbs. Is one of them implied? 
    4. When you find a suspect verb, ask yourself if an admissions officer would say I don’t care, or if taking it out would change the meaning of the sentence.

    You may need to rewrite a sentence to make it work without the I don’t care verb. 

    Go through your essay top-to-bottom and delete all the I don’t care stories, phrases, and verbs you can find.

    2

    Keeping it personal part 2: One should avoid these awful sentences. 

    One? Who’s this one of whom you speak?

    When hiking, one should keep in mind the difference between grizzly bears and black bears.

    When faced with a tough choice, one must always be true to oneself.

    Really? Why? And who are you to say? And why should I care?

    Do sentences like these sound a bit pushy to you? Arrogant? Obnoxious? 

    Or worse: academic?

    Keep it personal

    When hiking, I like to keep in mind the difference between grizzly bears and black bears.

    When faced with a tough choice, I strive to be true to oneself.

    This is easy: don’t use ‘one’ as the subject of a sentence. Not when you’re writing. Not when you’re talking. 

      This would be where one would go through one’s essay top-to-bottom and delete all the awful impersonal sentences one could find.

      3

      The dreaded college essay phrase.

      • If ____ had not happened, I would not be the person I am today/who I am today.
      • This experience gave me the confidence to ______.
      • I learned that if I persevere, I can accomplish anything.
      • ____ has had a profound influence on my life.
      • ____ is a lesson that’s affected me ever since.
      • The combination of ____ makes up who I am.

      These are the kinds of phrases that show up in college essays, but there are more. Avoid these and others like them.

      Remember the quintessential college essay (the one Jacob wrote before his final I lost it when Darius peed in the girls’ cabin essay)? Use this as practice to start seeing them in writing.

        Read through this sample paragraph and find the dreaded college essay phrases
        What are the “College Essay Phrases” in this paragraph?

        For the past seven summers of my life I have spent a week or more at a summer camp in the San Juan Islands, YMCA Camp Orkila. Five of those summers were spent as a traditional camper, playing games in the forest, or other things one might expect from a summer camp. Looking back on my time spent there, I can say with certainty that I would not be the person I am today without that camp. Over the years my counselors taught me valuable life skills, most importantly how to be confident in my actions, a lesson I have always carried closely with me. It was because of these valuable lessons and their impact on my life, that I decided I would take the next step, and become a counselor at my summer camp.

         

        Did you catch them all?

        For the past seven summers of my life I have spent a week or more at a summer camp in the San Juan Islands, YMCA Camp Orkila. Five of those summers were spent as a traditional camper, playing games in the forest, or other things one might expect from a summer camp. Looking back on my time spent there, I can say with certainty that I would not be the person I am today without that camp. Over the years my counselors taught me valuable life skills, most importantly how to be confident in my actions, a lesson I have always carried closely with me. It was because of these valuable lessons and their impact on my life, that I decided I would take the next step, and become a counselor at my summer camp.

        Go through your essay top-to-bottom and delete all the dreaded college essay phrases you can find.

        4

        Your own sneaky words.

        We all have really common words, phrases, grammatical mistakes, punctuation errors we make really, really often.

        It’s really important to know what your really common patterns are. It can really make a difference in your writing.

        (See what we did there? Really, really sneaky!)

          What are your sneaky words and phrases?
          What are your sneaky words and phrases? Here are some things to look for (or, better yet, have someone else look for):

          • Words or phrases you repeat
          • Similar sentence patterns/lengths/structures
          • Shifting tenses
          • Repeating yourself

          This is a great time to bring in an English teacher or a sophisticated writer. Ask them to look for your patterns so that you can learn to find them for yourself and fix them.

          You may repeat words or phrases like:

          • Really 
          • Very
          • Incredibly
          • Great
          • Awesome
          • However
          • Utilize
          • In other words
          • At the same time
          • I always

          You may recognize these as junk words and phrases, college essay phrases, or adjectives and adverbs tabs. It’s the same thing, but these are the ones you use in your writing. 

          Go through your essay top-to-bottom and delete all of your own sneaky words and phrases you can find.

          Over time, you’ll probably discover more — that’s ok. We all have them!

          5

          You know lots of words. Use only those.

          Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.

          –Stephen King

          Really. Just you’re own language and vocabulary. Go back to the foundation—know yourself. A powerful perspective for a college essay is imagining that you’re sitting around a campfire telling your story to your friends.

          If you wouldn’t use a thesaurus there, don’t use it here.

          And, don’t use anyone else’s words, either. Is there language that doesn’t sound like you? Did your mom or dad, or big sister, or English teacher suggest or change a word or phrase? It’s could be obvious to the admissions officer. Clear all those words out and make sure it sounds like your voice.

          If you don’t, it’s not authentic.

          Go through your essay top-to-bottom and delete all words you added that aren’t your words. You may have a straightforward natural vocabulary or a sophisticated natural vocabulary. Make sure it’s your vocabulary. 

          6

          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.