I never thought I wrote well. This is not false modesty. Nor am I looking for complements. I never thought I wrote well because, to be perfectly honest, I did not.
In the time capsule that doubles as my office closet, I recently unearthed 40-something year old correspondence from my college days. In addition to ideas of which no one would be proud are some grammatical constructions that strain the sensitive ear. Term papers in those days received a “Gentleman’s C,” professors having been instructed not to flunk anyone who gave writing the “good old college try.” Whereas my personal letters wouldn’t even earn a passing grade.
In my defense, I was writing on topics about which I knew little and cared less. Tristam Shandy remains an obscure and difficult work. I had no insights then or now. Today I get to pontificate about parenting, kids who learn differently, college admissions, substance abuse, even running. I haven’t so much found my voice as stumbled across my topic.
This blog receives several thoughtful responses each week. People ask permission to repost, reprint, and otherwise pass along my remarks. I will therefore presume to proffer this advice for college admissions essays specifically and written communication in general. I would be happy if aspiring writers picked up an idea or two. I would be especially pleased if students struggling with college admissions essays–five days to deadline!–were to benefit.
1. The Muse are fickle. Do not tell them you’ll be right back. Keep a notebook, analog or digital, with you at all times. No thought is too small. Joy it down. Your insight will be gone in the morning even when your bladder is empty. The time to write down that incipient thought is now.
2. My buddy Bruce taught me that “a page a day is a book a year.” Applying to a dozen competitive colleges can require 20 or 30 immaculate paragraphs. No time like the present.
3. The brain may not be a muscle exactly like triceps or biceps, but there is only so much you can do in a day. You can write five decent essays in five days. Each draft might take 90 minutes. You do not want to write five essays in one day. Seven and a half hours of forcing words onto a page is misery. And your last essay will be worse than your first.
4. It took me three years to write the first of these blog posts. That was seven years ago. Now it takes three hours to churn one out. (You are reading Number 383.) Stop thinking; start writing!
5. You can’t simultaneously hit a softball and run to first base. Hitting and running are separate activities. Writing and editing must be distinct as well. Just get your thoughts down on paper to start; there will be time to edit later.
6. Perfect is the enemy of good.
7. Start in the middle. Of course you don’t know what you’re going to say. You haven’t said it yet. “Planning” your essay is a synonym for not starting it. Just write something. We will talk later about whether or not this is your final draft.
8. Organization is a value in corporate America and military campaigns. You are a high school senior; you are not invading Normandy. The best personal statements are more anecdotal and less linear anyway.
9. Read some of the 20th century’s best writers. Orwell was bestial in his ability. Acknowledge, as I do, that nothing we ever write will be anywhere near that good. Then write anyway.
10. There is no such thing as good writing. There is such a thing as good re-writing.
11. Not to put any more pressure on a process that is already riddled with threats to self-esteem, but your grandchildren might be fascinated in what their ancestor was thinking about way back in 2017. Pour out your soul. Progeny–like admissions officers–are more accepting of honesty than you might believe.
12. Write about what you know: yourself. Ignore the temptation to address trigger topics including abortion, immigration, politics, gun control, or other issues of the day. Opinions are like digestive systems. Everyone has one; but no one wants to hear about yours.
How can loving parents help? As with sobriety, diligence, and every good quality, modeling seems to be a big piece of the puzzle. Rather than yelling at your kid about unceasing application deadlines, why not sit down with a pen and notebook yourself? What should you write about–given that as the parent of a 17-year-old you are not applying to college yourself? How about a journal entry regarding your feelings about having a child heading off to college? Talk about a gift for your kid 30 years from now when she is going through the same emotional bloodbath with children of her own.
I have the same wish for both generations: “don’t get it right, just get it written.” Now get to it. Stop reading this essay and start writing your own. The time capsule in your office closet is waiting.
9 thoughts on “Write or Wrong”
Good stuff; but remember, compliment, the way you mean it, is spelled with an ‘i’.
Speaking of compliments, I hope your ears were burning yesterday, David. But it was confidential and I cannot divulge.
Wonderful blog post today, young man.
Inspirational! I also like the idea of “Joy it down” –not sure if that was a typo or intentional. I need to just sit down and do it!!
Kinda ironic dontcha think that a blog about writing contained two typos! Another good friend pointed out that complement and compliment are different words. Big oops!
I wish I were smart enough to have written “joy it down” when I meant “jot it down.”
Thank you for keeping me honest. And please keep these comments coming. I love hearing from everyone!
Ross beat me to it!
“The Muse are fickle.” (?)
Your advice are excellent. And so is your recommendations on writing College essays.
Tristram Shandy is a very funny book, or at least it tries to be.
Frightening but (so I hear) true: Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary a page a day over a year.
But then he didn’t have a day job, and his mother, who lived downstairs, brought him soup.
And coffee with cake, too (I made that part up).
Good writing is hard work (says Snoopy).
having just gone thru the college app process with both my kids, must say this is quite true!
shared this with the woman who guided both kids through the process and their essays.
her comment: If only I could send this to a few of my students this year without adding to their anxiety
Writing is the most important skill a person can acquire. I love teaching students (and sometimes their parents!) how to write.
Good timing..now that I am in the throes of re-editing