27 October 2011
Tips for College Essay Writers
When I read and grade college papers--and I have now graded over 10,000 of them in my career--I find myself making some of the same points over and over again. This suggests there might be some use in making some of these tips public.
1. Address fewer points. Do not think you must write every thought that occurred to you. It makes your writing cluttered and your discussion superficial. Examine the few points you do make thoroughly.
2. Do not try to impress your reader with your writing. Strive for clear, concise, and plain writing. Impress your reader instead with the quality of your thought. (This is similar to advice I give to students writing essays for college applications: Do not tell me how smart you are; show me how smart you are. Raise an interesting but difficult issue, and puzzle your way through it. That is impressive; telling me how many important issues you are aware of and how brilliant you are at discussing them is not.)
3. If you are writing a paper, then write a paper. Do not write as if this were an e-mail, a text message, a personal correspondence, a blog post, or a personal conversation. That means no slang, no abbreviations, no asides, no contractions, no unexplained allusions, no inside jokes, no sarcasm. There are increasingly few opportunities in life to write formally. This, however, is one of them; treat it as such.
4. Explain yourself. Strive to make yourself understood. Do not affect an airy pretense to profundity, and, unless you are writing poetry, avoid the use of poetry, metaphors, and rhetorical constructions. If you use a metaphor, explain its literal meaning. If you raise a rhetorical question, answer it. If you introduce a term, define it. Do not assume your reader 'knows what you mean' or 'sees what you are getting at': explain exactly what you mean so that there is no ambiguity and your reader does not have to guess.
5. Omit needless words. Avoid repetition, avoid wordiness, and do not use five words when three will do.
6. Dress appropriately. Use a language, a construction, and a voice that are appropriate to the subject and setting. This means knowing your audience, but it also means respecting the enterprise: respect your reader's intellect, respect the subject and the medium, and respect yourself. Neither condescend nor flatter; neither mock nor pretend nor pose.
7. Get serious. Do not waste your reader's time with long introductions, with stories and needless anecdotes, with silliness, or with filler. Our time is valuable, our subject serious. Write, therefore, with a purpose and maturity that demonstrate you understand that.
8. Revise. Do not ever turn in a first draft. Revise, revise, and then revise again.