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College Essay Writing and Interview Skills


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

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.

 

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

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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