Short Sentences: Write Them

In my high school English classes, I often mistook a long sentence for a powerful one. I wrote sentences that dripped onto four or five lines and were crammed with commas, semicolons and conjunctions. I thought these fat blocks of text proved I was brilliant and complex.

I was wrong.

Long sentences quickly become complex in a bad way: too many ideas strung together, too little time for the reader to take a mental breath and process. Short sentences gain power from their simplicity. They’re the John Waynes of composition, using the fewest number of words to make the biggest emotional impact on readers.

Here’s an introductory essay paragraph that will show you what I’m talking about.

Standing at the top of a 14,000-foot-tall mountain is the wrong time to realize you’re afraid of heights – sure, I had climbed rock walls and ridden rollercoasters before, but now my knees were shaking, I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and my brain was hitting the Panic button.

This opening image teems with tension, but some of its intensity gets lost in the sentence’s length. Readers need time to construct your world in their minds. Without carefully placed periods acting as stop signs, readers will race right by important details.

We can intensify this same image simply by inserting a few periods.

Standing at the top of a 14,000-foot-tall mountain is the wrong time to realize you’re afraid of heights. I had climbed rock walls and ridden rollercoasters before, but this was different. My knees were shaking. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. My brain was hitting the Panic button.

Do you hear the difference? The short sentences help readers feel your anxiety. It’s almost like we’re short of breath, too. Now each of those feelings is a separate event, rather than being lumped in with other information in the long sentence.

Long sentences dull the emotions you’re trying to build in your story. Short sentences are like tiny bullets being fired. They’re powerful. They’re memorable. They’re smart.

See what I just did there?

Photo credit: Paxson Woebler, Flickr

The Best College Essay I’ve Ever Read

“What was the best essay you ever read?”

That’s the most common question I get asked at the college essay writing workshops I lead for high schools students and their parents. Was this Best Essay hilarious? Heart wrenching? Harvard worthy?

My answer usually disappoints the questioner: I don’t have a favorite essay. Some excel in their humor, others in their imagery, and others simply because the author knew how to spin a good story. But I do have favorite types of essays, which can be much more valuable to dissect. After all, you can’t copy another essay’s subject matter – but you can mimic its technique.

One of my favorite essay types, which I’ve dubbed the A/B essay, reveals the interconnectedness of two separate events in a student’s life. (“First A happened, which led to B.”) Here’s an example of how it works, and just as importantly, why it wows an application reviewer.

The A/B Essay: Spark Plugs

A senior named Patrick must answer a common essay prompt for his college application: “Who has impacted your life most?” Patrick thinks back to his childhood and the many weekends he spent in his parents’ garage helping his dad rebuild cars. At the time, Patrick’s duties felt mind-numbing: he might hand his dad a wrench every few minutes, hold a part in place while his dad hunted for the screws, or tighten bolts on a new tire.

Patrick had resented his automotive apprenticeship as a kid. While his friends played video games or slept past noon, Patrick was stuck in a humid, windowless garage.

But one evening in the fall of senior year, Patrick’s friend called him in a panic. Her car wouldn’t start, and she was stranded 20 minutes from home. Patrick quickly diagnosed the problem: bad spark plugs. He found an auto parts store that was still open, bought new plugs, and drove out to fix his friend’s car. She poured out compliments and admitted a little envy. When and where did Patrick learn to be so handy?

In that moment, Patrick realized the value of those weekends spent in his dad’s garage. Sure, he learned practical skills like changing oil and replacing flat tires. But he learned a bigger lesson, too. Although Patrick dismissed his dad’s expertise as irrelevant at the time – after all, Patrick was only 10 and could barely even reach a car’s brake pedals – those skills became precious as he aged. Patrick learned from his dad to always pay attention to what someone can teach you, even if it doesn’t seem immediately useful.

By uncovering the thread that connects these two memories, Patrick has now outlined a winning A/B essay.*

Why It Works

The A/B essay’s strength comes from its overall message: the student learned a valuable lesson from someone (or something) and then applied the lesson to his or her own life.

That’s exactly what a college hopes you will do on campus, too. Professors don’t just want their students to memorize the periodic table or future-tense conjugations of French verbs; they want students to use those lessons in new, real-world situations. Prove to a college that you apply what you learn to your own life, and you assure the college that you’ll continue to do it on campus– and four years later as an alumnus, too.

You can practice now by applying this lesson to your own college essay. Who knows? Maybe it will turn out to be the best college essay I’ve ever read.

* I normally discourage students from writing about their parents for this kind of prompt because so many applicants will choose to do the same. In this case, Patrick’s narrative feels strong enough to justify the risk of several hundred (or thousand) other applicants writing about their parents, too.

Photo credit: D. Nettleton, Flickr

The 500-Word Diet: How to Trim Your Essay’s Word Count

Transient

When your essay tips the scales over an application’s word limit, these tricks will slim your story to its most essential parts.

 1.     Start every sentence of your draft on a new line.

During my own editing process, I often realize I’ve stuffed a six-sentence paragraph full of clarifications and cluttered phrases and backtracks. I carelessly cram in words instead of composing simple, powerful sentences.

In his book Several Short Sentences About Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg prescribes a diet for these kinds of fatty paragraphs: press the Return key when you reach a period and start each new sentence on a fresh line. It tricks your mind into believing each sentence carries the full weight of a paragraph. It also helps your see your ideas more clearly, so you will repeat and clarify yourself less frequently.

I now write all of my drafts this way – in fact, it’s how I compressed a library of writing manuals into my 60-page college essay guide, The $100,000 Essay. (See what this post looks like using the technique.)

 2.     Identify and eliminate repetition.

Writers sometimes fear their words are too weak, so they repeat ideas and include synonyms in an attempt to avoid ambiguity. But consider this excerpt from a student’s essay about her conversations with local veterans:

There is so much wisdom and insight that gets wasted and thrown away when veterans’ experiences are ignored and forgotten.

The student’s otherwise strong idea is muddied by synonymous words and phrases (in bold). Isn’t something wasted the same as something thrown away in this context? Although the words wisdom and insight have nuanced meanings, does she really need both to make her point?

By selecting the stronger synonyms, the student can slash her word count by 50%:

There is so much wasted wisdom when veterans’ experiences are forgotten.

Pick your most powerful words, and slice out the synonyms.

3.     Ask a reader what is essential – and what isn’t.

Like a comedian and his jokes, you won’t know what material works until you get it in front of an audience. Let someone read your essay and identify where plot points stray from the main idea, which details seem superfluous, and whether the hook and ending are too long to deliver the proper zing.

Choose your reader carefully, though. Parents and close friends may know the story already; you’ll need a fresh audience to identify extraneous material.

(BONUS TIP: Ask your reader what’s missing from the essay, too. Since you already know the story, you may forget the important detail that your whole plot hinges on.)

Photo credit: Mixy Lorenzo, Flickr

Eliminate Exclamation Points: The Hot-Air Balloon Trip

Weak writers rely on exclamation points to convey emotions like excitement or surprise. Great writers let their words and story perform that work for them.

Consider this excerpt from a student who wants to show excitement about winning a contest:

I thought my chances of winning were almost zero—after all, the radio announcer said that thousands of people entered the contest—so the call shocked me: I had won a balloon trip across the country! I couldn’t believe it! I wondered what a person might pack for a hot air balloon trip across…

The student expertly conjures suspense and anticipation with her words, but she cheapens the final moment with overstated exclamation points. An otherwise well-crafted paragraph begins to look juvenile. The reader’s ears begin to ring.

The Expert Essay Fix

Most exclamation points can be converted into periods without sacrificing tone, but if the moment begs for a stronger emotional punch, try making the sentence its own paragraph:

I thought my chances of winning were almost zero— after all, the radio announcer said that thousands of people entered the contest—so the call from the station shocked me: I had won a new car.

I couldn’t believe it.

I wondered what a person might pack for a hot air balloon trip across…

Do you see (and hear) what two strikes of the Enter key can do for you writing? A stand-alone sentence conveys emotion without turning up the volume to 11. It also breaks up a long paragraph — a visual trick that gives your essay a dash of style.

The only home for an exclamation point in a college essay is within dialogue. Let’s say your essay is about the time your sister pushed you down into a well when you were six. If you include the phrase you screamed over and over—“Help, I’m trapped down here in this well!”—a period probably doesn’t do the memory justice.

How to Hook Your Reader: The Rubik's Cube Competition

If your essay is the last in a stack of 99 others your college application reviewer reads in one day, you’ll need an opening line that shocks them out of essay-induced hibernation.   

Rubiks.jpg

But that’s a lot of pressure when you’re still staring at an empty Word document, begging for those first genius lines of prose to materialize. When faced with the story of your entire life, where should you start?

First, remember that personal writing don’t have to flow chronologically. Many college application essays open with a vivid anecdote that drops the reader into the middle of some action. (It’s such a common technique that a term was coined: in medias res, Latin for “in the midst of things.”) Once the writer has lassoed the reader’s attention, he can zoom back out to give essential – though perhaps not so thrilling – background details.

See the technique in action below.

How It Works

A student writes her essay about a statewide Rubik’s Cube competition she participated in during high school. Unsure how to grab a reader’s attention, she simply opens her essay at the beginning:

I’ve always had an interest in patterns. In elementary school, I realized I was good at memorizing patterns and putting puzzles together. I also enjoyed math class, which seemed like a big puzzle to me. The skills came naturally to me, and my fourth-grade teacher suggested that I might like solving a Rubik’s Cube. A few months later, I asked for one for my birthday.

While this opening includes essential information, it’s not very exciting. Why would we read on? Where is the hook?

Later in the essay, the student vibrantly paints the moment she begins solving her Cube at the tournament:

The Rubik’s Cube began to feel sticky as my fingertips sweat onto the colored squares. My eyes darted from the Cube to the digital stopwatch on the wall, recording my elapsed time to the hundredths of a second. It was like I couldn’t rotate the blocks fast enough; my brain worked faster than my hands. I had a few seconds left. Could I solve it? Could I really win the tournament?

Ah hah! We’ve found a perfect hook: it gives us just enough information to orient us to the subject, and it teases us with suspense. Readers will feel their hearts beat faster as the seconds tick by in the student’s story. What’s going to happen?

We’ve been hooked.

The student moves this moment to the opening of her essay and follows it with the background information on her love of patterns and puzzles.

Find Your Own Hook

Don’t let your own fingertips sweat if the perfect anecdote doesn’t instantly appear on the page; great openings rarely come first in a first draft. Instead, trust a reviewer to guide you to your best material. Once you’ve completed a draft, let a friend read it. Ask them: are my first few lines captivating? If not, what part of the story excited you most? Was there a moment you wanted to see more vividly drawn?

Let your audience tell you what hooks their interest, and reorganize your essay accordingly. Sometimes, essays are like Rubik’s Cubes: all of the colors are there; you just have to put them in the right order.

For more tools to uncovering the perfect opening line, download The $100,000 Essay, my manual on how to write a winning college essay. Chapter 2 covers four techniques for finding your own essay’s “hook.”

Photo credit: rishibando. Image cropped.