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How to Write an Essay: Part I

September 25th, 2017
Writing an essay from beginning to end can cause some frustration, especially if you’re new to the process. So, we thought we would offer a few easy-to-use principles that can help your writing become clearer and more fluid. These are basic tools you can use in almost any style of essay writing, not just college personal statements. If you practice them, you can develop habits that will make writing a more engaged and empowering experience.

Write your Introduction Last

Nine out of ten times, the first paragraph a student writes is background information that isn’t necessary for the reader. One of the reasons we do this is because we sometimes have trouble getting started – most of our students’ first question is “how do I even begin to write an essay?” – and the way we attempt to resolve this issue is by writing a paragraph of background that helps us think more clearly about the topic. However, this paragraph is for us, the writer, not the reader, and can be confusing because the reader isn’t primarily reading for background – they came for purpose and clarity of ideas. Usually, the first paragraph a student writes won’t make it into the final cut.
In a 650 word essay, every moment counts, so don’t get hung up on the introductory paragraph at the beginning of your essay writing process. Instead, write a messy rough draft, and only after you have a clearer sense of your essay’s ultimate goal should you go back and write or refine your introduction. This way, the introduction – in whatever style you choose –actually introduces the essay in a way that is compelling and relevant for the reader. Things brings us to our next point…

Editing is Everything

Sometimes we’re so excited that we even have a rough draft that we quickly lose sight of future possibilities for our essay; once the words are on the paper, they may seem stuck there, resistant to change. So how do you continue refining your writing? How do you improve what you have? By some accounts, good writing is 20% drafting and 80% editing. We tend to agree.
Editing appears at several levels of your writing:
  • On the level of the idea and content – literally how you refine what you’re writing about;
  • On the level of the word – the specific vocabulary you use to convey your point;
  • On the level of the phrase and sentence – how you string your language together clearly;
  • And on the level of structure – how your ideas flow clearly over time – sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph.
There are many other ways to edit, but if you’re having trouble moving your essay forward, this is where you start. If editing is difficult for you, ask yourself the following questions:
Are my ideas clear in each paragraph? Do they fit together across the entire essay? If not, go back and clarify them, paragraph by paragraph. If each paragraph has a clear purpose by itself, then it will be easier for your to see how they connect together across your essay.
Do the words I’m using convey the exact meaning that I want to convey? If not, look for synonyms or include adjectives and ultra-specific nouns to add a bit more substance and nuance. This may seem like a small point, but it adds up over time and often makes the difference between a good essay and an excellent piece of writing. If a word sticks out to you as odd, don’t be afraid to try variations; writing is about experimentation and finding out what works in each new context.
Are any of the phrases I’m using redundant or repetitive? Do I explore the same idea twice in the same way in different parts of the essay? Sometimes, the easiest way to reduce redundancy is to combine adjacent sentences into one, then cut similar variations later in the essay. Don’t be afraid to merge overlapping ideas using a comma, a semi-colon, or a set of em dashes. This will also help with sentence variety and cadence, adding another layer of quality to your final product. There are many ways to combine ideas, and reducing repetition will help your essay develop a flow that your reader will enjoy.

Don’t Know the Answer Ahead of Time

Good writing is fundamentally about discovering what you don’t already know or understand. Many of our students first say, “I have no idea what to write about!” And we say, “of course you don’t!” How can you know before you do a little exploration? The idea that you have to know exactly what you’re going to write about before you sit down and write is a bit silly. Ideas develop over time, as you investigate them and inquire into deeper levels of understanding.
Use the writing process to clarify your purpose – the goal of your essay – then refine that purpose through editing. Sometimes you know exactly what you want to write about, and that’s great! But if you don’t, start by answering a basic set of questions – What do I care about? What do I find exciting? When am I happiest? From where do I draw inspiration? – and work from there. The process of writing sometimes looks like this: question, draft, discover, refine, and repeat. If you show up to a blank page with a preconceived notion of what your essay should look like, you may lose out on the opportunity to find out what it could look like, which is often more interesting both for you to write and for the reader to read. If the reader can sense discovery in your essay, they will be excited to see what you’ve discovered and will stay more engaged in the reading. This brings us of our final point…

Essays are Unique at the End, Not the Beginning

Many students believe that their essay must be unique in order to stand out. This is a misconception for a variety of reasons, but the biggest problem with this line of thinking is that the writing itself is what makes our essay unique, not the topic. There are no unique topics, unless you’ve traveled to the moon. So, instead of struggling to find a unique topic, simply find one that you care about, then focus on making the writing excellent and personal. By the end of your editing and revision, you may find that you have discovered things during the writing process that you did not anticipate when you first began; this is where your essay stands out. So don’t worry about finding a unique topic before you begin; it probably won’t happen. And even if it does happen, trying too hard make an idea work can often feel stilted and forced. Instead, maintain an open mind for as long as you can, keeping an eye out for new and unexpected connections. That’s what readers enjoy most.
These are just a few of the tools we teach our students to use when drafting their personal statements and supplements. Like most things, they take practice before they really make sense. Keep an open mind and try a variety of approaches to see what works best for you! Ultimately, it’s your writing; the more you feel a sense of ownership over the material and the process, the more satisfied you will be with the end result.
If you liked this post, please share it! If you’d like more tips on essay writing, editing, or content development, leave us a note in the comments section and we’ll address questions in future posts!
If you’d like to learn more about how Spark Prep coaches students on essay development, drop us a line: info@sparkprep.com

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