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College Essay Writing Tip #3 – the Writing Process

There aren’t too many people who would dare argue that writing isn’t (very) hard. Success in writing usually comes as much from persistence as it does from talent. Just like the Little Engine that Could, the writers who never give up are the ones who are the most successful.

Persistence can trump Talent, and often does

Persistence can trump Talent, and often does

The same is true for college essays. Because the task seems so daunting, it is easy to want to throw in the pencil. But those who stick with it, generally end up with an essay they are proud of.

Most writers – especially new writers – tackle all of the steps of the writing process at once. They try to brainstorm, draft, and revise all at the same time. How many times have you written a sentence and gone back and rewritten it several times in an early draft?  It’s hard to get out of the first paragraph when you do that. It’s hard to finish anything that way.

Breaking the process down into steps makes it far less overwhelming.

Consider tackling your essay in six stages. I know that sounds like a lot – but you have to remember this is an investment in your future. It’s worth the time you will be putting in.

Here are the steps:

Stage One
Brainstorm – what do you want to write about?

Stage Two
Start writing. Get the story down without correcting mistakes or rewriting anything. Write without interrupting the flow of your thoughts. If you must, you can underline words/sentences that you know you want to revisit. But no backspacing. No erasing. Just move forward and write like a Madman. (For more info on that, read this wonderful essay by Betty Flowers.)

In the writing session, don’t worry about cliches or repeating yourself. Don’t worry about the sequence of your story. Don’t worry about the “so what” of your story. Just Write.

Now let your essay sit for at least 24 hours without doing anything to it. Take a day off.

Stage Three – Read Your Essay Out Loud, then…
Look at the structure of your story. Think about your essay as if it were a fairy tale.

Does your essay include these important story elements:
Once Upon a Time – you are probably writing about some sort of change. So this part of the essay highlights how things were before the change happened so the reader can understand the impact of the change. (In Cinderella, this would be that Cinderella lived happily with her mother and father.)

Until – this is what happened that caused the change. (In Cinderella this would be her father married her wicked stepmother who wouldn’t let her do anything but clean. She wouldn’t even let Cinderella go to the ball.)

But then – this is a twist, usually an unexpected twist. You might have more than one of these. (In Cinderella, this would be Cinderella’s fairy godmother appears, Cinderella meets the prince but loses her slipper, the prince finds the slipper, and then the prince finds Cinderella.)

And Now – this is the final result. This is the “so what” of your essay. This is where the theme comes to life. The story is a set of plot points. The theme is why those plot points matter. (In Cinderella, this would be Cinderella marries the prince and no longer has to live with the stepmother.)

You’ll notice these are all plot points that lead to the “so what” that it’s better to be kind. Love wins. If you are a good person, goodness will ultimately find you. The “so what” is the reader’s take away from the story.

As you revisit the structure of your essay you can make small changes to other things along the way but don’t get distracted from the mission. Make sure your essay covers the Once Upon a Time, Until, But then, and the And Then. This makes it a complete story.

Because this is such a short piece, it will probably work best if you tell the story in chronological order.

Stage Four – Read Your Essay Out Loud, then…
Now look at each paragraph. Is each one necessary? Does each paragraph advance the story? Is each paragraph presenting new details rather than repeating information that has already been shared? Is each paragraph in its logical place in the story – does what happened first, come first?

Is each sentence doing the same things – advancing the story, not repeating details, coming in the right place in the story/paragraph?

Now look at the words – are you using strong verbs so that you don’t need as many adverbs? Is each word necessary? Don’t be afraid to cut out anything that is not absolutely necessary.

You will keep the reader’s interest when she wants to know what happens next. So make sure your story is moving forward. Each paragraph, each sentence, and each word should be working to do just that – advance the story.

Then finally, does the end of your essay make it clear what the “so what” of your story is? If you have done a good job with your plot, the “so what” should be clear. It emerges out of the story. You shouldn’t have to force it to be there.

Stage Five – Read Your Essay Out Loud, then…
Here you will get down to the nitty gritty. Make sure the sentence-level mechanics are working: grammar, complete sentences, correct punctuation, strong word choices, etc.

Stage Six
Ask someone you trust to read your essay. The first blog post in this series lists questions you should ask them when they are finished. Click here to read that post.

Good luck and happy writing!

P.S. For the full list of college essay writing tips, click here.



You don’t need more time or talent…

I have written about Glennon Melton from Momastery before here. She’s kind of full of awesomesauce. And I kind of heart her writing. She perfectly imperfect.

Well she’s done it again. She’s written this lovely article about why you don’t need more time or talent to write (or insert whatever your passion is). You should read it. Right now.

Five sentence short story…..

I mentioned a little while back that Hannah Tinti from One Story was teaching online short story class. It turned out to be awesome. No surprise there.

The first assignment was to create a five sentence short story. Here is mine…

Paul and Maribeth sat in the small church holding hands and praying that someone would find their daughter alive. Maribeth mentally retraced their morning, trying to find some clue as to where Elizabeth could be. Paul looked at their intertwined hands and said, “I only left her alone for a moment.” Shocked, Maribeth left the church and headed toward the center of town. She found Elizabeth at the corner of 5th and Maple buying an ice cream cone from a vendor Maribeth had never seen before. 

I’m sure this seems to neatly tied up at the end but it’s just meant to be the framework of the story, establishing the setting, characters, conflict, plot, a secret, and the resolution.

Keeping promises to myself…..

Here is what I wrote today. telescope

The telescope sat by the stained glass window in the attic. A pact with a young boy named Henriech lay below it, also broken.

The boy’s grandfather, Albert Einstein, had left on a journey to America. He wanted to meet with the American President Mr. Roosevelt.  His grandfather had learned of a new type of bomb created with nuclear fussion and wanted to alert the American President to its danger, encourage the Americans to also research the possibilities.

Henriech had the letter his grandfather had written, then crumpled after deciding an in-person meeting would have more impact. Henriech smoothed the letter with his small hands and folded it twice before putting it in his science book for safe-keeping. The boy’s grandfather left him with a kiss on each cheek and a promise to return. A trip to Anchorage to see the Northern Lights was all but guaranteed.

Henriech sat in the chair by the window with the newspaper folded on his lap. He watched the night sky. It was cloudless and starless, a blanket of nothing. Hitler had come into power and his grandfather did not feel safe returning to Germany so he remained in America sleeping in a comfortable bed. Henriech slept each night on the wooden floor near the telescope, hidden from the watchful eyes of the soldiers on the street.

276 girls

I probably shouldn’t admit this but I am not a big follower of the news. It’s depressing and I never get the remote anyway.

But when I heard on the radio that 276 young girls were kidnapped during their final exams, the world seemed to stop spinning. I literary had to regain my balance and turn up the news. Did I really hear that correctly? When I realized it happened a few days before I heard about it, I wondered how that was possible.

How are we not all consumed with this? How can we be so focused on what the  the owner of the Clippers said and not be focused on the fact that  276 girls were ripped away from their families with the possible intent being to sell them into either slavery or the sex trade.

How are any of us sleeping at night?

A story on the news this morning was that they might have found Christopher Columbus’ boat. Who cares?

For weeks, we watched non-stop coverage of the missing Malaysia plane – not that coverage wasn’t important – but it was non-stop.

There are 276 girls missing in Nigeria and hardly anyone is talking about it.

Over at the Examiner………..

Well, hello there. It’s been a while since I’ve been here.

But that’s only because I’ve been busy writing over at the Examiner.

Writing about things like….

Writing Conferences

Passive Voice

Why Stories Matter


Looking for Writing Motivation

I hope your year is starting off great and that you are inspired to make your dreams come true!




Those people…..

by Ellen Weeren

I just read this post by Seth Godin about “those people”. window washer car wash

If you aren’t familiar with the name, Seth is a guru of sorts on everything “thinking”. And that’s just what his posts do – they encourage you to think about things. And the posts are generally short, so they don’t hurt your brain too much. 😉

Seth’s latest post reminded me of a man I saw at the car wash the other day – in fact, that man has been on my mind a lot lately. I had thought about writing about him – but never took the time to do it.

Seth’s post reminded me that I should give this man his due.

A few weeks ago, I had my kids take all of their stuff out of the minivan so that I could drive it over to the car wash and pay $50 to have it cleaned, vacuumed, and spit shined.

And, please don’t even ask – of course, they were bothered by having to remove all of their c.r.a.p. so that I could pay someone else to clean up their mess.

Their shoes, their trash, and their basketballs (oh how I hate those basketballs clanking around in my car) … and I couldn’t reach the van-cleaning fairy … so they actually had to get off their arses and get their stuff out of the car so that I could spend an hour watching someone clean it for them.  And yes, I might have yelled out something just like that right before they leaped into action.



Okay, I did.

Anywash, I got to the car wash and paid for the super clean option because that’s exactly what it needed – a super cleaning.

This option takes a while so I brought a book with me. I sat on a bench in the warmth of the sun with a cold Diet Dr. Pepper and read while my car was being cleaned. (And no, the irony is not lost on me here. I get it.)

One of the washers caught my attention and I lost all interest in the words in front of me.

He was absolutely fascinating. He cleaned my car with all the pride of ownership. As if he had saved for months for just that very car. Like it was a special car. He was even smiling while cleaning up someone else’s mess.

He’d polish a spot, lean back, and clean it again.

The window, that would have taken me all of a minute and a half, consumed a good eight minutes of his focused attention. This was not a “oh, if I take longer, I’ll have to do less” situation. It was very clearly a “this is my job and I’m going to be the very best at it I can be” situation.

He’d clean the back area of the car and then close the hatch. But, then he’d open the hatch again and double check – just to make sure everything was clean.

It seemed like he did this for every crevice he came across.

I’m sure I was sitting there like a fool with my mouth agape.

My doctor probably isn’t even that precise.

Now, I haven’t applied for a job at a car wash lately – but this guy can’t make more than say $12 an hour.

And it struck me how unfair this all really is. My kids were sitting at home on their arses with a litany of opportunities waiting before them (many that they can’t be bothered with) and this guy is busting his arse with probably not that many options.

To be fair to my kids, they do work hard too.

But not the way this guy does. They don’t have that kind of pride in the mundane things they do – heck, they don’t do too many mundane things.

I’m not really sure how all of this will change but imagine what that guy could accomplish with more responsibility and more opportunities.

It’s heart-breaking that he might not have the chance to do anything more than clean a window.

Some great writing articles…

I don’t think I’ve ever written a “best of” post, so here goes.writing pig

There have been some fabulouso writing articles on the web recently and I’m gonna share ’em – just in case you missed ’em.

A Simple Way to Create Suspense by Lee Child at the New York Times.

How to Keep a Story on Track by Lisa Cron on Writer UnBoxed.

A Simple Approach to Revisions by Cathy Yardley on Writer UnBoxed.

The Mentor/Mentee Benefit by Vaughn Roycroft also on Writer UnBoxed. (This is an older article, but a good one.)

That’s it for now. Happy Weekend!

How to find comparable titles for your story…..

Now that I am trying to figure out how
to capture the attention of a literary
agent for The Alligator Purse, I am learning a lot about the whole query/submission process.

One of the things I keep hearing over and over is that writers must be able to compare their story to another book that has done well in the same genre.

This proves that writers understand the market they are writing for and that they understand their genre. Kinda important stuff.

My first inclination was to pick Jeannette Wall’s wonderful story The Glass Castle. The main problem with that would be that the Glass Castle is a memoir. My story is fiction. Ahem.

Thank goodness someone explained to me that is a super huge no-no. I would have looked like a baffoon.

But then who? A friend mine suggested I look at Anna Quindlen’s work. I nearly fell over. But okay. Then I thought really, I am supposed to claim that I am as fabulous as say Anna Quindlen?

Well, probably not.

absolutely not.

But what writers should be able to say is that “audiences who love the Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards would also be interested in The Alligator Purse.”

See how’s that’s different? I might not be as amazing as Kim Edwards but we at least appeal to the same readers.

But that’s tricky too because the Memory Keeper’s Daughter was wildly popular. Heck, they even made a movie out of the story.

So, a lot of other writers might be comparing their writing to Kim Edwards.

And, agents might be thinking, “Oh sure, your writing is just like Kim Edwards. You gotta bridge to go with that manuscript?”

I have been told (by someone who would really know) that audiences who buy Pieces of My Sister’s Life by Elizabeth Joy Arnold would very likely be interested in The Alligator Purse.

So, yea for me, someone who reads a lot knew a great example for my story.

The question I can see floating in your thought bubble right now is “Yeah, good for you, but what about me? How do I find titles to compare my story too?”

I’m so glad you asked that.

You read a lot of books in your genre.

Now your thought bubble is screaming, “How do I know what books? There are so many out there?”

Another good question dear thought bubble.

Check out the website called All Readers.

You can put in selection criteria that will narrow suggestions to a manageable number.

And now you are wondering why I am so so smart. Ha. I have an answer for that too. I am taking a class from Caitlin Alexander thru Media Bistro. She was an editor at Random House for over a decade so she knows a little somthin, somthin.

And then I can only say good luck – it ain’t easy. But it is critical.

It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye…….

My dear friend from college put out a request on Facebook to see who might be interested in taking her daughter’s Flat Elizabeth on an adventure.

If you have never been entrusted with a Flat Stanley and do not have any idea what I am talking about, you should really consider what kind of friend you have been. For those of us who are trustworthy and creative and just spectacular in general, sometimes our friends will send us a Flat Stanley (or other cutout doll named after their child).  There is a children’s book about a boy named Stanley who gets smushed by a blackboard and accidentally sealed in an envelope and he ends up on a grand adventure. And some teachers think it is a great idea for kids in their class to create their own cutout doll and send him/her on his/her own grand adventure.

It is a really fun way for the kids to learn about the world.

Being so competitive willing to help another mother out, I raised my hand immediately. And, no I did not knock three other mothers down in the process – remember it was a virtual competition – I behaved myself quite nicely. After all, I am a civilized competitor – but I might have shouted “me, me, me” into the web-o-sphere once or twice. Maybe. And maybe not. But maybe.

In fact, lots of people offered (to no avail) to play tour guide to Flat Elizabeth. My friend is a delightful person and so it makes sense that a lot of friends would offer to help her. And I am not at all suggesting that they are losers in the Flat Elizabeth campaign – but you can see where she ended up. 😉

On a slow train to Ranthambore – the tiger preserve in India. Oh, yes, in case you have forgotten, India is where “I” live. Flat Elizabeth came to visit me! Yahoo! Not the other losers friends who offered to help out. I’m just sayin – I won, I won. tee hee.

She was a delightful travel companion. She didn’t each much and never had to stop for potty breaks. She didn’t even fight with her siblings – of course, that might have something to do with the fact that she does not have any siblings – but she did not fight once. And, yes, she is absolutely adorable. My friend friend’s daughter  is no slacker. She would never send a ragtag Flat Elizabeth to visit.

So Elizabeth went on a tiger safari and saw real tigers.

She went to an Indian classroom and found her initial on the board.

She saw forts and monkeys and learned a lot about the emperors of India.

She also rode a camel and an elephant.

She played in a band.

The only snafu that we hit was that security was tight at the Taj Mahal and they would not let dolls in. Yes, I know you would think the real threat would be guns, knives, or other expl*sives. But apparently, dolls are also on the no-go list. I tried as hard as I could to get them to change their minds. I explained it was for a school project – that Flat Elizabeth is really not a terr*rist and meant no harm to the Indian people. But it seems to have more to do with advertising – they do not want people taking pictures of the Taj with dolls and using them for advertisements. And, yes, I did my best to explain that in the west, we do not consider a piece of paper a doll. No offense intended to Flat Elizabeth – as I mentioned, she is the bestest Flat Elizabeth e.v.e.r –  but she hasn’t actually been offered a modeling career and her intentions were purely academic.

But we did not let that stop us. We found a picture of the Taj and took her picture in front of it and checked the Taj Mahal off our list.

She also had her picture taken with a member of the royal family.

Okay, now you are just being picky. He was a member of the royal family and he is sadly no longer with us – but once we stretched our imagination with the Taj Mahal, anything went. So, yes, that is a picture of her with a king. Truth be told, I think he was actually flirting with her. Don’t laugh – they have a lot in common you know – being made of paper is just one of the fine qualities they shared. Although I think she is from better stock than he is – or was.

She even wore a makeshift sari.

She also got all the diet coke she wanted. Shhhhh. Don’t tell my friend that part. But we loaded her up on caffeine.

Flat Elizabeth also got to stay in a palace. And enjoyed every second of the royal treatment.

And her bath at the end of the day was nothing short of divine.

Somewhere along the line, poor Flat Elizabeth lost an eye. I have sworn myself to secrecy on this one – mostly because I have no idea how it happened. But my dear friend understands that traveling in India can be dangerous. She has assured me that she knows of a very reputable eye surgeon in the U.S. who will keep it all on the down low.

Unfortunately I did not take a picture of her with only one eye because I did not want any evidence of the mishap should I be asked to testify later simply forgot. But I assure you, she was the cutest dang one-eyed “doll” e.v.e.r.

All the votes are in and it is o.f.f.i.c.i.a.l. – I am the best Flat Elizabeth hostess ever. Me, Me, Me.

My friend was so grateful that she sent this note…

Dear Queen of all things Flat Elizabeth,

Thank you so much for opening your heart and home to Flat Elizabeth. Your adventures with her far exceeded our highest expectations. You are just amazing. Our project will be so much better than anyone else’s. You are a rock star. It is as simple as that. We are hereby nominating you to the highest order of Flat Elizabethness and crown you supreme hostess and tour guide. It is with humble hearts and grateful friendship that we thank you for all that you have done for us. Even Mother Teresa herself could not have done such justice to this project.

Okay – what it really said was …

Dear A Reason 2 Write

Flat Elizabeth had a great time. Thanks.

Oh sure, the real version was more toned down than what I imagined it might be. But I know in my heart the Academy will be calling soon. Don’t doubt me. 😉