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College Essay Writing and Interview Skills

What the CIA and Romance Novels Taught Me About Writing (Part 3): Beware Disconnected Ideas

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Guest blogger: Joanna NovinsCopy of What the CIA and Romance Novels Taught Me About WritingPart 3 Beware Disconnected Ideas

As I write this blog, a Sesame Street song keeps running through my head, “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things is not the same…”

The third lesson in this series is a lesson as simple as the Sesame Street song. It’s so simple that I almost hesitate to write about it. And yet, it’s a mistake I see made by both seasoned professionals and students.

Connecting Disconnected Ideas

In my experience, people connect disconnected ideas because they have a lot of facts or ideas they’re trying to get down on the page. When you read through your drafts, examine each paragraph carefully. Ask yourself if all of the ideas or sentences in the paragraph have a common theme. If they don’t, to paraphrase the Sesame Street song, remove the ideas that are not like the other ones. If they do have a common theme, double-check your introductory sentence. Make sure it’s consistent with your common theme. If it isn’t, or you’re having trouble coming up with a first line, the problem may be that you have too many unconnected ideas in your paragraph.

At this point, you may be thinking, I’m an experienced writer, I know how to group “like” things together. But take a look at the following sentences:

  • Vlahos, who has been president for the last six years, likes strawberry ice cream.
  • Stringer, 82, plays basketball and soccer.
  • Chen, a lawyer, is twenty-nine.

If they sound correct to you, consider them more closely. Unless Vlahos is the president of Strawberry Land, his fondness for ice cream has nothing to do with his office. Stringer’s age has nothing to do with his interests. Similarly, Chen’s vocation has nothing to do with his age.

There are a couple of reasons for these all-too-common, disconnected connections:

  • You’ve reached the end of paragraph and you’re left with a few facts that are “interesting” or “nice to have,” so you dump them into one sentence.
  • Your ideas are related, but you’ve failed to include qualifying information. For example: Despite his advanced years, Stringer, 82, plays basketball and soccer on a regular basis.
  • You know the ideas are not related, but you’ve included them in a single sentence because you think short sentences sound flat: Vlahos has been president for the last six years. He likes strawberry ice cream.

Don’t fear the short sentence…exploit it!
Yes, I said it in my previous blog, and I’ll say it again, short sentences can be powerful. Admittedly, the examples I used were of important information summarized concisely for maximum impact, i.e. I shot the sheriff.

So what do you do if the information, by itself, has minimal impact?

Try changing up your verbs, adding an adverb, or a qualifier:

  • Vlahos has been president for the last six years. He enjoys strawberry ice cream.
  • Vlahos has been president for the last six years. He’s obsessed with strawberry ice cream.
  • Vlahos has been president for the last six years. Though lactose intolerant, he’s been known to sneak strawberry ice cream.

Words like “obsess” and “sneak” add tone to the writing. In this case, since they’re my choices, you’re also getting a sense of my voice as a writer. The choices you make will allow you to set the tone of your essay and showcase your voice as a writer.

A final word of warning: Beware the Ands
A good way to catch disconnected ideas is to look closely at your sentences with the word “and” as you’re editing. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the sentence too long? If it takes up more than three lines of your paragraph, consider shortening it. “And” is often a good place to break a sentence. (If you break your sentence in two and both say the same thing, you’ve found a redundancy—delete the weaker sentence.)
  • If the ideas are connected, will breaking them into two sentences strengthen the point you’re trying to make? Two sentences may give you the opportunity to reveal more about yourself.
    • Consider: A competitive athlete, I like running and basketball.  vs.  A competitive athlete, I like running because it tests me as an individual. I like basketball because I enjoy working as a member of a team.
  • Is the connection between the ideas unclear? If you’ve written something along the lines of, I like soccer and neuroscience, ask yourself what is it about these different activities that appeal to you. Is it something they have in common? Or do you like them for different reasons? If you have lots of disconnected reasons you like both, consider whether your essay would be more powerful if you focus on the activity that is truly your passion.

Read the first two posts in this series:
Part 1: The Hook
Part 2: Keep it Simple, Stupid (K.I.S.S.)

Joanna NovinsWith over two decades of writing experience for the Central Intelligence Agency and the commercial fiction market, multi-published author Joanna Novins understand the importance of hooking the reader with the first line. She also 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.




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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