Write your application essay

Q. I need to write my college application essay. What do you recommend?
A. Start now.

Start early to write your application essay for college or graduate school. Start as soon as you know you will need to write one. Allow time to reflect, prepare and revise. Give yourself time to start all over, if you feel the need. Waiting until deadline guarantees your own failure.

Choose a fascinating topic. You know that your application includes your grades, awards, activities, and so on. Write about something different or unique that will educate, amuse or answer questions for admissions evaluators. Use your personal statement to show another side of yourself.

Present your information and ideas in a focused, thoughtful and meaningful way. Support your ideas with examples. Do more than list your qualities or accomplishments.

Call me for tips, advice, hand-holding – and coaching. 

 

Yes, grammar matters.

you're right

A man I don’t know sends an e-mail. According to his signature, he handles website development, digital marketing strategy, SEO, social media, paid search management, and content marketing. So, while he probably is not a writer himself, he might hire or consult with writers. He says:

“I am not trying to connect with you for any particular reason. I am trying to do a better job of connecting with people I have met so that I don’t have to go to a million places to find people when opportunities or potential introductions arise.

“For example, if someone came to me with a need for a writer who was crazy fanatic about grammar. I would likely send them your way but might give up if I have to search all over for your contact information.”

Wow, I think. He thinks I am crazy-fanatic-about-grammar. I am, and proudly so. It’s not for nothing I have co-opted my friend’s nickname of Comma Momma. I swear, though, I never corrected this guy in public, perhaps because we have never met. Then I wonder: Who wants a writer who is not crazy-fanatic-about-grammar (CFaG). Do people call and ask him to recommend writers who are or are not CFaG?

Similarly, who wants a tailor to alter a jacket without being crazy-fanatic about making the sleeves the same length? Who wants to eat a restaurant meal where the chef is not crazy-fanatic about a clean kitchen? Who wants a website designer who is not crazy-fanatic about checking broken links?

But this is not the only dude who asks if grammar matters. In fact, I teach a course at Temple University Center City called “Does grammar still matter?” The answer, if you care, is that grammar does matter.

The fact that teachers don’t teach grammar at any grade level doesn’t mean it’s not essential to clear communication. It is. The fact that parents don’t or can’t correct their children’s oral or written grammatical errors likewise does not diminish the value of good grammar.

I teach grammar to adults because they didn’t learn it in school or they have forgotten it since. They come to class for refreshers, hoping to recall first-, second- and third-person voice; active and passive verbs; and the difference between affect and effect.

I am not alone in believing that grammar matters.

Andrew Hindes lists credibility, professionalism and clarity among the 6 top reasons why grammar matters.

Richard Nordquist says that people associate grammar with correctness. “Knowing about grammar helps us understand what makes sentences and paragraphs clear and interesting and precise.”

And Steve Tobak writes about creating content for social media: “If what you’re writing will be public and has your name attached to it, assume that anyone who works with you or might be interested in hiring you will see it. As such, whatever it is can be conversational, and a typo isn’t the end of the world, but it should still be reasonably grammatically correct…. Business writing is about clarity in communication….”

I remain, sincerely yours, CFaG. Consider signing up for my grammar class at Temple.

Who wears head scarves?

Bahiraa Abdul Rasheed is folding tall piles of scarves into perfect rectangles, preparing them to hang on a thousand hangers around The Islamic Place, a shop in West Philadelphia.

She’s wearing a scarf – a Muslim head covering called a hijab – in a blend of greens, yellows and tans.

Hijab means to protect or cover, and it relates to far more than clothing. Hijab is personal, says Aleem Choudhary, the Pakistani native who manages the store. It’s about one’s personal relationship with God, he says. “In Muslim culture, women have very high status. They are considered sacred. They represent the honor of society. Hijab is about protecting that honor.

“Some societies turn that ‘protection’ into a method of suppression,” he says, and non-Muslim people often look at women in hijab and think of them as repressed. But that’s often not the case. In the Pakistani town where Choudhary’s wife grew up, the women jointly decided to wear hijab. “My wife has a master’s degree, so no one is suppressing her, but she prefers to wear hijab.”

Rasheed, born Christian in the USA, explains how she began wearing. (“Wearing” is short for “wearing hijab.”) “I was working at Rite Aid,” she says, and I wanted to know why I saw sisters covering up. So I asked one sister, and she told me about the Muslim religion. I asked more questions, and she said she would help me.”

Rasheed’s journey began. “I feel Muslim in my heart,” she says. “I want to know more about Islam. As I submit to Muslim law, one condition is covering my hair.”

The hijabs most popular among Western women are square scarves that cover the head and neck but leave the face clear. Although women wear hijab to maintain modesty, available colors range from somber black, brown and burgundy to fashionable lime, hot pink, brilliant florals and tailored geometrics.

Aaliyah Hamid, shopping at The Islamic Place, grew up singing in the choir in her grandmother’s Catholic church. “Now my family are all Muslims, but we are not strict,” she says. “As my faith has increased, I cover my entire body.” She wears a khimar, too, which covers the head and neck, and a jilbab, a neck-to-shoes over-garment.

Mohamed Elcheikhadi, of a Philadelphia suburb, is a single, practicing Muslim man. His mother and sister, who remain in his native Lebanon, wear hijab, but his Philadelphia sister does not. “My family does not restrict our women. Our values do not require that women cover themselves. But a woman who covers is not at risk of getting negative attention from strange men, which would be bad.”

Before visiting this store, I asked a dozen women wearing traditional head coverings if I could talk with them. On a bus, I met two women wearing hijab: one, wearing pastel pink, teaching her mom, all in black, to navigate Philadelphia on her cell-phone map. Daughter said that some veiled women tend to wear a lot of makeup, “And if they have money, they get nose jobs, too.”

But she never returned my phone calls. Half the women I approached said no and turned away. Half said yes – and then failed to respond on the phones or e-mail addresses they had shared. The consensus in The Islamic Place was that that was not surprising, that the women were maintaining their privacy, their cover, their hijab, by refusing to talk.

A study guide accompanying a PBS show called “Suppression or Liberation: Islam, Hijab and Modern Society,” says that countries vary in defining women’s garb. Iranian women must wear a hijab, and Saudi Arabian women must veil their face. In Turkey, the government outlawed women from wearing hijab in public places.

Aleem Choudhary’s sister Wajeeha describes herself as “A 25-year-old hijab-observant Muslim woman born and raised in the Philadelphia area. My parents are immigrants from Pakistan who came to the U.S. 26 years ago.” She is a PhD candidate, writing her dissertation on the visual representation of South Asian Muslim women in American mass media.

“At age 14 I started wearing hijab,” she says. “My mother does, but she questioned me, wanting to make sure I was doing it of my own volition. I was. Wearing helped me grow with my friends, and I am glad I did it early. I grew comfortable and confident in it. If you’re looking for a job in your early 20s, you wonder if hijab will get in the way. Women who are denied employment because of wearing hijab can always go get another job.”

Choudhary is focusing on Malala Yousafzai, the 18-year-old, scarf-wearing Pakistani who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. “She wears the garb that is local to her community, but she is the opposite of how Muslim women have been represented. There seems to be a tendency to exceptionalize her, to say she is a celebrity, that she is not like other Muslim women.”

Choudhary finds Philadelphia “a very Muslim-friendly city. I don’t see any Muslim hatred here.”

Elcheikhadi says, “If I marry, I could ask my wife to cover herself, but I would not demand it.” In fact, he has never dated a woman wearing hijab, and a woman who covers all but her eyes would seem “too strict” for him. “To Americans she looks old-fashioned, even like an outcast. But an educated woman with hijab is a plus. You know she will care deeply about her husband and that she will be faithful.”

Local resident Hakima Ewida, a native of Morocco, has a different, perhaps unique, perspective on covering. Her father was an imam, a leader of prayer in mosques. His lesson guides her daily behavior: “Cover your heart with good deeds. God sees your heart.” She has never worn hijab, but she considers herself fully wrapped.

This article appeared November 24, 2015, on Huffington Post.

 

8 things to write in your memoir

Little Me

Little Me

Everyone wants to write a memoir. But nobody knows where to start.

Here’s a writing tip: Start with the easy, nonfictional facts of growing up.

1. Write about the street where you lived. Draw the floor plan of the house you grew up in – or the house you remember best, or the one where you lived at age 9.
2. Describe rooms, closets, porches, pianos, the kitchen table. Mention the art or cracks that decorated the walls. Draw the paths to the front and back doors. Draw the sidewalk where you jumped rope.
3. As you write, consider the sounds, smells, tastes and feelings the house evokes. Write about the smell of sauerkraut or your father’s pipe tobacco. Write the sounds of a squeaky floorboard, the screen door slamming, your sister stomping her snow off her boots on the landing, the parakeet calling.
4. Write about the smooth velvet of the wing chair. The swish of beaded curtains. The steam rising from a pot of soup. The cold kitchen when no one prepared dinner. The lightning outside your bedroom window.
5. Write about the people and their activities. Show your mom leaning over the tub, giving the twins a bath. Show grandmom letting you taste the peaches as she makes preserves. Explain your disgust when Uncle Charlie demands a kiss in exchange for one measly tootsie roll. Depict Dad hammering as he builds a set of shelves for your room.
6. Write what happens in each space. Describe lying on your sister’s bed on Saturday morning, listening to the radio and playing with the parakeet. Write that you are kneeling on a stool, helping Mom make kreplach or gnocchi or kielbasa. Create a picture of yourself leaning on the bathroom door, whining for your brother to hurry up.
7. Tell how you feel in each space. Explain where you go when you feel sad. Mad. Scared. Write the details of the space where you dance and do homework.
8. Once you write these factual details, force yourself to dig deeper than the surface recollections. Now you can write what you were really feeling at the time.

And here’s an idea: Be a bag lady. Save every idea that comes to you: in a bag, a box, a diary or a Word document. Save them now. Write them later.

To quote or not to quote

arm comes down

Q. I contribute regularly to several websites.

Someone I interviewed for an article now wants to withdraw a quote. He said it, no question, but now he regrets it. He says it could get him into trouble. Do I take it out?

A. Sorry. That’s a sticky situation.

And the answer is: It depends. It depends on the topic, depends on the quote, depends on how central the quote is to the point you’re trying to make. It depends on whether you can get that information in some other way. Depends on your editor and your audience. Depends on the source and your relationship with her/him.

Each time this situation pops up, I cringe. Last time it happened, I had already submitted the story when one source whined that he had spoken inappropriately. I phoned my editor to explain. “Not a problem,” he replied by e-mail.” And I don’t need to know why. I’ll make that cut.” Bless him.

That’s not a completely satisfying answer, is it? If you are early into your career, delete any quotation when someone backs down on. That will help you not burn bridges, allowing you to interview this person again for the same or another outlet. The repercussions of denying his wish could be unpleasant.

So far, my answer relates only to the process of interviewing and writing the story.

Once you take into account the legal possibilities, though, you will surely comply with the wishes of the interviewee. Unless you are among the rare writers who carry libel insurance, you are asking for trouble by crossing this person. Anyone can sue you for anything, whether or not the complaint is valid, and you need to respond to every suit. The time and money you will expend on defense will far outweigh any efforts for this story.

Even if you are right and your interview subject is wrong, I suggest you delete her/his quotation.