Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
124 was spiteful.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind another. His mother called him “WILD THING.”
Call me Ishmael.
These are indelible first lines. I often wonder how long it took Garcia Marquez, Morrison, Austen, Sendak, Melville and other literary giants to perfect them. How many drafts did they have to painstakingly craft and then heart-wrenchingly toss away before finally penning those artful sentences?
Some are born writers. For them, writing is effortless. But for most of us, writing does not come so easily. We have to work hard at it, and even with great effort, we still struggle. Staring at that blank page is daunting, paralyzing even. (What should I write?!) Suddenly, cleaning my room, filing my nails, catching up on emails – anything but writing – seems more urgent.
Writing takes discipline and practice. Think of it as training for a marathon. It’s a long process. Devote yourself to it. Find a place where you think and write. Just do it: Write and write some more. The first draft is always the hardest. Don’t be afraid to revise, to take it apart and put it back together again. These are good pieces of advice that I have received over the years and ones that I often share with my students. As the summer approaches, and those dreaded college essays lurk around the corner, I offer some writing tips that I hope rising seniors, and younger students, find helpful.
Start early, don’t procrastinate. As a counselor, I find that the most stressful aspect of writing college essays is insufficient time. Don’t wait until the weekend or even the week before the essays are due; the odds of producing a brilliant essay then is slim. Start early, map out a writing schedule, and stick to it. Dedicate at least several weeks to the process because good essays take multiple drafts.
Invest in brainstorming. You have the best ingredients to a good essay already: your life story. How the ingredients come together and which flavors you decide to highlight can make all the difference. Talk to people who know you well and draft a list of potential topics. Then reflect on your experiences thus far as well as where you are headed. Let your thoughts stew for a while. Really think about what is important to you and makes you, well, you. Be thoughtful and reflective. Admissions readers read thousands of essays. It’s unlikely that the topic will make your essay stand out, but your singular voice, thoughts, and ideas can.
Write. Find a good place where you can write, whether it’s a quiet room or a bustling coffee shop, and block off at least a couple of hours per sitting. Whether you outline meticulously or prefer stream of consciousness, just start writing. The simple act of writing – clicking away on the keyboard or moving a pencil across the paper and seeing words materialize – will overcome inertia, fear, and unproductivity. Once you start, words and ideas will come.
Read. When you hit a writer’s block, for inspiration, read something good, maybe a classic novel or The New Yorker. Actively listen for the author’s voice and identify the elements that make the writing so compelling.
Revise, revise, and revise some more. Don’t be afraid to revise what you have written (even if you spent hours or days on it). Cut sentences and paragraphs, and rearrange the structure. If an essay becomes unfixable, toss it and start over. That’s how you make the essay and your writing better. After finishing a satisfying draft, take a break from it. When you return to it, you might gain a fresh perspective and catch something that had slipped your notice before.
“Omit needless words!” How can you capture your entire life in 650 words? “Omit needless words!” Will Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, of Charlotte’s Webfame, authored some of the best rules on writing in The Elements of Style.Two other favorite rules from the cannon: “Use the active voice” and “place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.” For more writing tips, read their entire book; it’s only 85 pages, and well worth your investment.
Tone and word choice matter. Readers are drawn to likeable voices. Does yours pass the “likeability test”? Here, word choices and the tone matter a lot. Pause over words and phrases – how do they sound, and what do they say about you? When in doubt, seek objective feedback. Have a couple of experienced readers critically review your essay.
A note for younger students. There are two things you can do to improve your writing: Read and write. A lot. The more you read, the better you will think and write. And read the good stuff. Write often and regularly, and not just for school. Journal, blog, and reflect on life’s little or big moments. Then try to articulate your insights in words. Probably most importantly, ask for regular feedback on your writing; sometimes, you learn the most from others’ edits.
The old saying “practice makes perfect” applies absolutely to good writing. There are no shortcuts, so I encourage you to get started as soon as possible!