Free Cookies! But it’s Actually 4 Tips to Improve Your Essay Writing
As a writer and editor, I have just passed another round of reading to see what needs improvements. With that in mind I see some problems in the world of writing for publication and thought I might offer some advice for those people who are looking to improve their chances when submitting an essay to professor, submitting a story for newspaper, magazine or blog.
The first places that I ever had my writing published are the kinds of places that the literary world sneers at. I was taught to write, not for journals or clubs or collections of literature, for the pages of my high school newspaper and yearbook. From there I moved on to my junior college newspaper and magazine, stopping along the way to design, write and print several professional conference programs; all of this was before I got to a Cal State and had the shrewd eyes of professors gauging and weighing every sentence I turned over to them. By the time I got here, to my current position of writer and editor essays, I had already had a rather unique experience in presenting my words to any kind of audience. For those of you who haven’t shared in these experiences, let me tell you that having a professor mark you down or getting a story rejected by a literary magazine is nothing in comparison to the shame of your yearbook accidentally publishing a story about defeating Blackbirds at water polo, misprinting a college president’s name as “THAT GUY” for 20,000 students to see, having every attendee at a conference come up and needle you over a typo, or (worst of all) realizing that there are a couple thousand people in your hometown with your idiotic 16-year-old opinions committed to print forever.
These kind of shocks are normally reserved for journalists because more people pick up the local free paper or buy their high school yearbook than will ever see most of the poems, short stories, essays or artworks ever submitted to a small magazine, blog or even your professor for consideration. As such, I have some well-gotten advice to share. I hope it helps.
1. Read Your Copy to a Tree
This sounds stupid, I know, but it works. But before you choose to submit something, before you share it with friends, before you let your mom read what you’ve written, read your copy to a tree. I do this for almost everything I write and it works because you need to have a safe audience who can criticize your work — in other words, you need to hear what you’ve written before you really realize what you’ve written. A tree (or a cat, or a dog, or an infant niece or nephew) is a living thing that will listen to your work without commenting which allows you to hear what you’ve said. You hear all your mistakes, all the sentences that don’t make sense, all the numbers, all the research you’ve forgotten to add until the last minute; in other words, you hear all the things that you glance past because YOU know what you meant to say that others will jump to criticize or that will make you look foolish if printed.
2. Get Away From a Computer and the Internet
I write at least half of my articles or essays longhand. This is nice because it means that I don’t have to lug a computer around with me all the time and can instead just scribble some notes or an outline on a napkin. But even better than the convenience is the inconvenience. We live in a digital age, most people can type faster than they can think through a sentence or read for a mistake and so the mistake might as well not exist if the author is so busy typing up more sentences and probably more mistakes. So write longhand, transcribe on a computer (adding more and trimming as needed) and literally get in touch with your work.
3. Put it in a Drawer
One of the most frustrating things on a yearbook or a magazine staff is the day when you actually get your product. You’ve been away from it for at least a couple weeks and as soon as the boxes with your book are unpacked you grab one, sit down, and scan for everything you did wrong. And every single time you did something wrong. When you’re working on a daunting project — a poem that needs a lot of adjustment, a longish short story, essays and academic papers, anything that you’re planning on presenting for other people to read — at some point the work becomes invisible to you. You’re so worried about it that you can no longer see the words on the page, no matter how many times you look at them which is why writers need to take a vacation from their writing. Stuff it in a drawer before you submit it, don’t look at it for at least a week (a month is more ideal) then go through it slowly; if you still like it, it’s as ready as it ever will be for publication — if you don’t like it, see the next bit of advice. Thing is, you even can and should do this with your college application essay. Trust me, it is totally worth it.
Nobody spits out a perfect first draft, it just doesn’t happen. Most bad writing is fixable, almost all writing is capable of being good, and even good writing can always be better. Look for worn-out phrases and replace them with something fresh, see if your structure needs to be tweaked, allow for new ideas to form and materialize in re-writing so that your work is better as a whole. If you think that you are touched by the muses and your first draft was perfect and all other drafts you write will be a waste, I can tell you right now that your work is more shallow that it should be. Inspiration is a great starting point but meaning is created in depth and depth is created by adding on anything that you might have missed in a good, but not great, first draft.
Thanks for taking the time to read and good luck writing your essay or whatever. It’s a challenging world and we all need what help we can get.
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