‘Tis the season for applications: 10 Essay Tips for Students Applying to College

Although I’m mostly known for my writing, I also do a bit of proofreading and editing. And the most common thing for me to proofread at this time of year is a college application essay.

Now, I’ve been looking at those essays for over twenty years – basically, since I was a high school senior myself. Back in the day, we had to type their final drafts onto our applications, of course.  typewriter

I’ve seen some wonderful college essays, and some terrible ones, in my time. I’m going to offer a few tips based on my experience. These tips apply to college application essays, but also to applications for scholarships, internships, and even many assignments.

I will not cover proofreading – which you can often get assistance with from a teacher, parent, or guidance counselor. If you proofread your own essays – and you should do so first, even if you are going to get help later – just make sure you wait at least a day or two after writing the essay to do the proofreading. Otherwise, you will likely not notice your errors.


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Clean your file cabinets for Passover: Yet another piece of wacky advice from yours truly

So, in the Klempner household, preparations for Pesach — Passover — are in full swing. We’re vacuuming and scrubbing the house, the car, and the van like crazy. I’m muttering things like, “Why do I let them eat in carpool?” and “How do you get cookie crumbs in sock drawers?” under my breath.

Photo by Pptudela and available through Wikipedia Commons

One of my favorite parts of Pesach cleaning is finding things you’ve lost: the missing token from a game you’ve been wanting to play on rainy days, spare change, receipts for purchases you’ve been meaning to return, missing socks.

I’m not suggesting you pull out the 409 and start scrubbing down your file cabinets (although, if a toddler has access to its drawers, it might be a good idea). I’m suggesting that you flip through some old stories — ones you discarded incomplete, or complete but not yet ready for prime time viewing — and revisit them.

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Patience is a virtue–Submit when it’s perfect, and then prepare to wait

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been picking up the pace of my submissions, and also broadening the variety of publishers I’ve been submitting to. What I didn’t realize when I committed to this strategy is how much this would test my patience.

waiting - image courtesy of microsoft

You might as well take a seat…this is going to take a while.

Let me explain. Usually, I write for Jewish magazines. If I submit a book, it’s usually a picture book involving Jewish subject matter. The world of Jewish publishers is very small, and the editors receive fewer submissions than those who handle secular material. The response time in the Jewish publishing world is much faster than in the secular publishing world. Moreover, some of the editors have gotten to know me over the years because they’ve employed me, read me online, or just like my style. I suspect that my subs don’t always go in the slush pile, at least in certain offices, B”H & bli ayin hara. Yes, I have to wait for a response from editors, but the wait is relatively short.

Re-entering the realm of secular publishing is a wake-up call to the realities of that world. Continue reading

Some clear ideas from the author of Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

Wednesday’s L.A. Times online contains an intriguing interview with David Mitchell, the author of the novel Cloud Atlas, which has recently received renewed attention due to its film adaptation. Mr. Mitchell’s comments are worth reading, as they illuminate some of the points I’ve been blogging about recently.
On the topic of inspiration (see my original post here), Mitchell says:

I think Mr. Mitchell just blew some of those clouds away. It looks like smooth sailing ahead!

When I go to a place I get a number of free gifts. I get some good lines about the environment. If I was here for long enough, and could have a little time to walk around more thoughtfully, I’ll get five decent sentences. Or halfway decent sentences, or sentences I can make worthwhile. About the place; they’re textual photographs. I’m just in the habit of taking them. Maybe because it was a long time before I had a camera.

Do you jot them down?

Yeah. It gives you something to do in restaurants and not look like a sad sack. And also makes the staff nervous that you’re a reviewer, so they’re nice. You should try it, it works! If you get these free gifts, use them in the text, use them in the prose, use them in descriptions. Put them in and they’re lovely little things to find on the forest footpath of the story, of the book. 

What’s interesting about the process that David Mitchell so clearly describes is that its both what I’ve previously called “the flash” of inspiration AND “foraging” for it. Continue reading

What’s harder than writing 1000 words a day?

Well, the kids are all in school, so I no longer have any excuses. I’ve been sitting at my desk daily and attempting to crank out a thousand words. This seems to be a pretty common goal for writers, and I seem to make it most days. Okay, some days. The days I’m not editing the stuff I wrote previously.

I guess he didn’t make it to 1000 words today.

On Friday, I set myself a different goal. I had written a piece a while back that the members of my writing group liked. However, when trying to market the piece, the best match for the story was a magazine that has strict word counts for each of its departments. I could only submit to one department at a time, and the piece would only be accepted if it met the qualifications listed. At 1500-ish words, my story didn’t fit in either department that matched the subject matter.

I had a choice with this piece. I could either beef it up to 2000 words, or cut it to 800 words.

So, Friday morning, I sat down to cut 700+ words from my article.

The piece had been well-edited before, and there were few passive constructions or the like to tighten up. At various points, I despaired that I would ever succeed. However, the process was extremely educational, and I’ll share a few of its lessons with you.

1) Think about showing vs. telling. I was able to cut several places where I found I was both showing and telling. The showing was enough. Let the readers make a couple inferences. It’s good for them.

2) Consider, “What it the main purpose of the story?” In a novel, there are often subplots or backstory that add to the narrative. Even a short story will often contain these elements. But in the short, short story (yes, it’s an actual genre), and even more in flash fiction, you have room to keep only the story elements that push the main narrative along. Yes, my little subplot was funny. Yes, I’d grown attached to it. But did it support the main idea? Not so much. Thus, it landed on the chopping block. Off went a couple hundred words.

3) Occasionally, adding a line will help you cut a dozen–or even more.I added a new ending (partly suggested to me by my friend Devorah Talia) and was able to eliminate a huge final scene that took up another two hundred words, or so.

Snip, snip!

4) How many adjectives and adverbs do you really need? After reading an article a year or so ago, I’d eliminated many adverbs from my writing vocabulary, switching to stronger, more precise verb usage. I had hardly any adverbs modifying verbs in the article. However, I seem to cling to the use of adverbs that modify adjectives. In this piece, the biggest offenders were the words “really,” “very,” “so” and the like. Also, the improved choice of nouns and verbs removed the necessity of using many adjectives.

5) Read aloud several times. I had read this piece to myself dozens of times already. Reading out loud was a very different experience. I was able to discern unnecessary material more readily, and often could think of natural substitutions for certain wordy idioms I’d used. Breaks in between allowed me to see the words with new eyes each time.

I submitted the piece this morning after cutting one more word. Let’s hope the exercise helps me sell the piece! Even if it doesn’t sell, the editing practice will have served me well.

More crazy ideas from yours truly

I’m sorta infamous among my friends for having lots of whacked-out, creative-but-slightly-off-kilter, usually (but not always) impractical ideas. Here’s my latest:

Rabbi Aryeh Leib Nivin–a motivational speaker/life coach/teacher/rabbi–speaks of everyone having a yeod, a unique life mission with which they are supposed to serve G-d (and people), and a tikkun, a soul correction they have to make in order to maximize their potential (by fulfilling their yeod). Also, a person has short-term lessons that must be learned as stepping stones to reach their yeod and tikkun. This self-development paradigm is very useful for those of us who want to build ourselves (especially now that we’re in Elul, the introspective month that leads up to Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur).

“That wacky Mrs. Klempner has some weird idea again!”

As I mentioned in a post last week, I’m going to be rewriting (yes, again!) the novel I wrote last year. One of the areas I want to focus on is character, really fleshing each one out better and more coherently. Many expert authors suggest strategies about developing character such as:

1) Learn about Myers-Briggs personality types and assign one to each of your characters.

2) Consider what each character most wants, most fears, their biggest secret, and what they have to learn.

3) Use drawing, cut-and-paste, or the like to assign an appearance for your character. Brainstorm their likes, dislikes, etc. Paste such items on your character chart.

4) Pretend to interview your character for a magazine.

All these strategies make sense, but they didn’t appeal so much to me. Then I thought, “Hey! Why don’t I apply Rav Nivin’s rules to fictional characters?” Assign a tafkid, a yeod, to each one, and a tikkun, as well?

So that’s what I think I’m going to be doing. Maybe not exclusively, but I think it will bring a Jewish approach to my mostly Jewish characters and subject matter.

Has anyone else out there tried “unorthodox” (pun definitely intended) ways of developing characters or doing other work that usually isn’t done in a “spiritual” or “religious” way?