By Steven Flores
As the school year approaches, parents and students will soon set out on the joyful task of editing school papers. Furthermore, for those lucky rising seniors out there, this academic load will dovetail with college admissions essays. Hopefully these four revision suggestions will help you make the rewriting process a bit smoother.
Revisit The Prompt:
- The prompt is your alpha and omega. Read it carefully: What is it actually asking, and did you lose the plot somewhere along the way? It is easy for students to lose the forest for the trees. Sometimes, their ambition runs away with them. Other times, force of habit causes them to skip over nuance. They think, “Oh, I’ve written this [type of] essay already,” causing them to miss subtle distinctions.
- Careful attention to the prompt will rein in your writing when it becomes unwieldy or errant. As an essay coach, I often tell my students that they will have four years (or more) to write their poetic magnum opus, but that the purpose of their college essays is to get in to college. As a former college professor, I sometimes failed serviceable— even admirable—essays that had nothing to do with the prompt. For these reasons, I would recommend going through the essay with a trusted editor and striking through all relevant parts of the prompt as they are answered.
Beware The Vanishing Mediator:
- The Vanishing Mediator is what I call something that is necessary to get you started on an essay, but no longer necessary in subsequent drafts. Think of it as a ladder you have climbed and can now discard. If you insist on carrying it around everywhere, it limits your capability of movement. The scene depicting the bus ride to your first debate tournament may have been necessary for you to start your personal essay, but that doesn’t mean it needs to make the final draft. Furthermore, to warp an essay around an obsolete idea is a disservice to your writing. Let the ladder go and you can move much more deftly.
- When considering what to leave in and what to take out, remember that writing is a process of disentangling the experience in your head so that it will make sense on the page. And when I say, “make sense,” I mean make sense for the reader. In the case of college admissions essays, this often means an admissions reader who’s been reading stacks upon stacks of essays for the past month—at this point, they prize clarity above all else. In the case of a high school teacher, it means demonstrating something you’ve learned in class rather than shoehorning your own insight that may only be tangentially relevant to the what the teacher is asking for.
Take Your Time:
- For whatever reason, some students think the hallmark of good writing is to write overstuffed sentences. It’s not. As I’ve just demonstrated, short sentences direct the attention–they stop us up, giving each word more weight. And while it may be true that there is a general correlation between the length of the sentence and the sophistication of the thought, correlation does not equal causation. In analytical papers, in fact, students who try to cram three sentences into one often run the risk of conflating premises and undermining the logic of their argument. In a narrative writing—say, for the Common App Personal Statement—students often deflate the tension of the story by telling us everything at once. Think of your favorite film, or your favorite speech. They take time to build momentum or get a point across. The trick is to make your writing so compelling that the reader is with you the entire way.
Have the Guts to Cut:
- In addition to whole scenes being vanishing mediators, there are also words, phrases, or renderings that simply have to go. “Have the guts to cut” is author Kurt Vonnegut’s kinder, gentler way of saying: “kill your darlings,” a piece of writing advice alternately attributed to William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. In narrative writing, this is sometimes attributed to showy, melodramatic prose that the writer insists on holding onto (“But I really like this!”). In analytic writing—e.g. school papers—this often takes the form of a piece of information that, although interesting in its own right, has little to no relevance to the point being made. Both cases involve the writer showing off, but to the ultimate detriment of the piece. In essence, the reader’s experience should be as seamless as possible, free of ostentatious phrases and superfluous facts that pull the reader out of the experience.
Remember: writing is mostly rewriting. While it would be nice to have all your writing come out as fully-formed, beautiful prose, putting the best words in the best order takes time, practice, and patience.