Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills

What the CIA and Romance Novels Taught Me About Writing (Part 2) Keep it Simple, Stupid

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Guest blogger: Joanna Novins

Since I have over a decade of experience writing and managing analysis for senior US policymakers and another decade of experience writing novels, reviewing manuscripts, writing cover and catalogue copy for a publisher of commercial fiction, as well as blogging and tweeting, what I’ve learned about writing couldn’t possibly fit into a single blog. So I’ve decided to craft a series of posts with what I consider the most important lessons.

In my previous post, I talked about writing for policymakers, book buyers, and college admissions officers. I stressed that they’re busy people facing a lot of choices and that it’s important to hook them with the first line. But once you’ve hooked them, it’s equally important get your point across clearly and concisely.

Keep it Simple, Stupid (K.I.S.S.)

I spent a great deal of my career working with the military and while I’m useless with a gun, grenade, or a compass, I’ve adopted the military adage “Keep it Simple, Stupid (KISS)” as my mantra when it comes to writing.

In my experience working with writers the more formal education you’ve had, the more difficult it becomes to keep your writing simple. Why is it more difficult? Because schools use the length of writing assignments as a measure of student progress. Indeed, one of the requirements to advance from elementary school to middle school is the ability to write a five-paragraph essay. By the time you’ve graduated from middle school, you’ve probably mastered the five-page report and are on your way to writing ten-pagers. As a senior in high school, you’re regularly knocking out 15 and 20 page reports.

You’re probably proud of your ability to write long papers.

And you should be. Writing longer papers means you know how to develop a thesis, research it, organize facts and ideas, and marshal them into a complex argument. Not to mention the discipline of planting your butt in a chair and getting it done. You’re probably also proud of your ability to use longer and more sophisticated words. After all, the ability to use longer, more sophisticated “SAT” words demonstrates that you’re not only well-read, but also able to grasp more nuanced concepts.

Now, all of a sudden, the college admissions officers want you to write short?  

Don’t panic. Writing longer words and sentences doesn’t make you a better writer any more than reading longer books makes you a better reader.
Consider the power of the shorter sentence:

  • I shot the sheriff” is better than, “I assassinated the local constabulary with an explosive projectile launched from a metal tube.”
  • Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” has more impact than, “To be honest Scarlett, I’ve had it up to my eyeballs with your whining, your manipulative behavior, and your incessant mood swings, so I’m leaving and it’s high unlikely I’ll be returning anytime soon.”
  • And this brief exchange between Bridget and Darcy from the film Bridget Jones’ Diary speaks volumes: “Wait a minute…Nice boys don’t kiss like that.”  “Oh, yes, they fu**ing do!

So how do you write short? Lose the padding!

  • If an adjective or adverb doesn’t make your sentence stronger, delete it.
  • If a modifying clause states the obvious (“as a high school senior applying to college”) drop it
  • If there’s a word that makes your point clearer (oncologist vs. doctor, gun vs. explosive metal tube) define it.
  • If a shorter word or sentence makes your point more powerful, do it.

Read the other posts in this series:
Part 1: The Hook
Part 3: Beware Disconnected Ideas

Joanna NovinsBefore turning her hand to writing commercial fiction, multi-published author Joanna Novins spent over a decade working for the Central Intelligence Agency. She does not kill people who ask her about her previous job, though she came close once with an aging Navy SEAL who handed her a training grenade despite warnings that she throws like a pre-Title IX girl. Joanna understands the importance of telling a great story, whether it’s about manufacturing solid propellant missiles, happily-ever-after, or how to present yourself.  She has extensive experience working with writers of differing skill levels, from senior intelligence analysts and published authors to aspiring authors and high school students. Joanna holds a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was awarded a bachelor’s degree with honors in history from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

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Author: Sharon Epstein

College consultant, teaching students how to write memorable college application essays, grad school and prep school essays, and succeed at job and college interviews.

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