Sunday, September 20, 2015

Writing the College Essay

In a bit of a departure from my recent subject matter here,  I wanted to say a few words about something neither specifically Catholic nor involving the reading of literature, and that is: essay writing.

It's the time of year that seniors in high school are starting to agonize over their college essays, which, for the Common Application, requires no more than 650 words on one of the five questions posted to its website. The difficulties and stakes are mind-boggling. How does an 18-year-old student, who has perhaps never read nor written a personal essay in her life, go about writing two double-spaced pages on herself that might make or break her chances of admission into a college? After all, it provides a college with its only chance to actually glimpse a student directly, without the often obfuscating intermediaries of grades, teacher's opinions, or resume titles.

The student's position, though, is perhaps not less desirable than that of the college admissions committee, which must sort through tens of thousands of these essays, many of which are strings of accolades and cliches about finding oneself or discovering one's passion. I speak from experience here: the essay is the first writing assignment of the year for my senior classes, and I end up reading around 70-80 of them each fall. Except for a remarkable handful, usually from the most creative types, the essays blur in my mind as I read through them, with little to distinguish the top students' from those at the bottom except fewer spelling and punctuation errors. And I don't blame my students here: it's a tall task to write an essay that showcases oneself without coming across as arrogant, that talks about a life-changing experience without sounding like a motivational poster.

The most difficult part of the college-essay writing process is not what to put into the essay but what to leave out. This is true in all of writing, but the personal essayist is at a special disadvantage here because she, as both author and subject of the essay, is blind to the necessary distinction between her two roles. In crafting an essay about an incident of personal failure (prompt #2), for example, the author is tempted to include as many details as she can remember about the incident, since they are all important to her: the weather, location, date, other people involved, and other significant strains of her life that radiate from this event like subway lines from a central terminal.

The problem is that the subject of the essay--the person who experienced failure--is a distinct character, a slice of the author that the college committee will see. Fill this slice with too many irrelevant details, and the 650 words will be so much gray mush. The key, then, is determining what to leave out of the essay--which details, though perhaps integral to the identity of the author, are not relevant to the central idea of the essay.

I was reminded of all this when reading a great piece in the New Yorker called "Writing by Omission," by longtime contributor John McPhee. He writes about his experience, over fifty years, of learning to improve his pieces by relentless cutting of words--often imposed by editors. He describes a process called "greening," common at publications that had fixed space for columns:

After four days of preparation and writing—after routinely staying up almost all night on the fourth night—and after tailoring your stories past the requests, demands, fine tips, and incomprehensible suggestions of the M.E. and your senior editor, you came in on Day 5 and were greeted by galleys from Makeup with notes on them that said “Green 5” or “Green 8” or “Green 15” or some such, telling you to condense the text by that number of lines or the piece would not fit in the magazine. You were supposed to use a green pencil so Makeup would know what could be put back, if it came to that. I can’t remember it coming to that.
As much as McPhee hated the exercise, it has stuck with him, and he now uses it in teaching creative non-fiction to college students. He gives them famously tightly written pieces, such as "The Gettysburg Address" or descriptions from Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and instructs them to "Green" a certain number of lines:
The idea is to remove words in such a manner that no one would notice that anything has been removed. Easier with some writers than with others. It’s as if you were removing freight cars here and there in order to shorten a train—or pruning bits and pieces of a plant for reasons of aesthetics or plant pathology, not to mention size. Do not do violence to the author’s tone, manner, nature, style, thumbprint. Measure cumulatively the fragments you remove and see how many lines would be gone if the prose were reformatted. If you kill a widow, you pick up a whole line.
Not a bad idea, and an essential one for writers of the college essay, who, because they would hesitate to "Green" anything from their own lives, have trouble doing it from their writing about themselves. But they must, or their essays, which are hard enough to write, will be even harder to read!

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