It is worth taking time to read other essay writers. These are a few of my favorites. Each of these writers is known for their strong, personal voice. While the language these writers use may appear simple and direct, they do a masterful job connecting with their readers.
David Sedaris. Try anything from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim or Me Talk Pretty One Day. Both contain a lot of stories from his childhood.
David Foster Wallace. He has two books of essays – A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider The Lobster. Both are excellent.
E.B. White. Yes, the same man who wrote Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little also wrote several volumes of essays. Many say he is one of the finest essay writers of the 20th century. Two collections that may be of interest are One Man’s Meat and The Essays of E.B. White.
Tina Fey. Well, yes, Bossypants is more a memoir than an essay, but the writing is similar. Tina Fey tells stories of her past and does a wonderful job making you feel that you know and understand her – exactly what you are trying to do in your essay.
1. Understand the purpose of the essay. It is not a brag sheet or a place to reiterate what can be found in a transcript. It is the one chance a student has to speak for themselves. A good essay will not get you into a school for which you are not qualified. A bad essay will not keep you out of a school for which you are over qualified. But it can tip the balance in that mid-range.
2. Understand your audience. Admissions departments are full of people who love students. Each time they open a new folder, they are hoping this will be THE ONE. It’s like a first date, and many of the same rules apply.
-Don’t be arrogant.
-Don’t apologize for yourself.
-Tell a good story.
-Don’t bore them with things that aren’t relevant.
-Make them feel something. Anything really. They can be scared for you, happy for you, excited for you, anything that makes you leap off the page. An effective essay shouldn’t be directed to a person’s head, it should be directed to their gut. Intellectual essays don’t connect as well as those that are emotionally compelling.
-Present yourself appropriately (check spelling and grammar). Violate grammar rules carefully.
-Make a good first impression. The first sentence is the most important thing you will write. Don’t expect to get it right off the bat. This sentence will most likely get revised more than all other parts of your essay combined.
-Everyone wants the date to work out. This is important. Everyone is hoping for a fairytale ending.
3. Time is your friend. Start early. A good essay can’t be rushed. Any writer will tell you, writing is more about rewriting, than it is about hatching a fully formed idea. Plan on trying a few ideas and/or prompts and to allow time for them to evolve through rewrites. Be bold. Try approaching things from different points of view. Move the camera. Look at an event close up, then from far away. Skip time. Imaging it as a movie or something you are explaining to a friend, a police officer, a dead grandmother. Control the story, don’t allow it to control you. Discover yourself in your writing.
4. Good writing operates on two levels – there is the story, then there is what the story is really about. In literary writing, it is called TEXT and SUBTEXT. Most often, the subtext of a story is something that you discover AFTER you have written the first draft. For example, the story of sitting on the sidelines as an underplayed varsity soccer player, working to overcome an unresponsive coach or an injury is really a story about tenacity or courage. Most writers don’t know the heart of their story when they begin. They may have a tale to tell, but its underlying meaning is usually discovered during the process. As you discover the subtext of your story, you can flesh it out in rewrites. Subtext informs an essay on many levels. It will alter which events you include, but it should also influence more subtle things like word choice and rhythm. Often writers come to understand the subtext of their story by distilling their tale down to one sentence or one word. If you can define your essay in one sentence or one word, you may find it easier to write.
5. Show, don’t tell. Allow the action of your story to illuminate who you are. Don’t over explain. Reading is about discovery. Your job is to provide adequate clues, not to spell everything out. Sometimes what you choose not to say is as powerful as what you choose to include. This is called negative space. On revision, think about where you can use events to ‘show’ and cut sentences that ‘tell’. Allow your story room to breathe
6. A good essay has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Sounds obvious, but worth remembering. A good beginning hooks your reader. It sets up your story, whether directly or indirectly. It lets the reader know what ‘was’. The middle sets up the obstacles you are facing. It is the mountain you are climbing. It builds tension as the story evolves. The end resolves things. It allows the reader recognize the change in you.
7. Try thinking small. The most interesting stories aren’t necessarily about big events. Often, they are about how small events change us, inspire us, redirect us. It is your perception of your story that will connect it to the reader. So don’t let the fact that you haven’t started an orphanage in an third world country or discovered a vaccine that will prevent the next global pandemic make you think you don’t have anything to say. Great stories have been written about what it’s like to hold someone’s hand. Or rig a boat with an old man. Or watch a bird build a nest.
8. Brainstorm. Think crazy. Write down 100 ideas. Remember days you wish you could over or days you would never want to live again. If you had to tattoo one word on your forehead, what would it be? What is the one thing you would never do? Have you ever been faced with a situation where you had to do it? Everyone carries a few secrets or hidden burdens. What are yours? Can you write about them? What scares the daylights out of you? What makes you feel like you can do anything? If you could chose a superpower what would it be and why? If you woke up one morning and discovered you were invisible, what would change? What would you do? Instead, what if you found you could fly? Think about the teachers in your life (both in and out of school). Is there one phrase they uttered or one thing they taught you that you will remember forever? It doesn’t have to be life changing, it just has to resonate. Is there something that you did as a child that has defined you ever since?
9. Trust the process. No one gets it right the first time. Once you find your story, don’t be afraid write different ways. Turn it on it’s head. Leave things out. Write a skeleton. Flesh it out. Then write it again with different bones. Cut your best line. Find cliff-hangers. Write to a different sense (smell, touch, sound). Find the humor in a serious subject and the serious moments in a humorous subject.
10. Revisit that first sentence. An essay can be won or lost in the first few words. Don’t neglect them.
Remember, everyone has a great story to tell. Really, they do. The only difference between a good writer and a bad one is perseverance.
Here are additional resources you may find useful. I particularly recommend taking the time to read a few of the essays published in Brevitymag.com. They provide stellar examples of Flash Nonfiction – an up-and-coming form of nonfiction that has a lot in common with the college essay.
On Writing, by Stephen King. A wonderful insight into the writing process, full of wonderful tips to make any writer a better writer.
Bird by Bird, by Annie Lamott. One of the finest explorations of the craft of writing that I have come across.
Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing by Elmore Leonard. Short, funny, and useful. Or skip the book and read this article from the New York Times. It sums up Elmore Leonard’s advice beautifully. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html
Brevitymag.com A magazine of Flash Nonfiction. All the essays are 650 words or less. Should you find you love writing college essays so much that one, two, or three essays aren’t enough, then flash nonfiction is the genre for you. This magazine publishes some of the best Flash Nonfiction around. Read a few and see how working writers tackle the issue of telling a rich and powerful story in a page or less.