After You Get Feedback on Your First Draft…
Using the responses you got and took notes on, go back to the beginning of your essay and rework what you think needs reworking. Do the best you can. If something sounds awkward but it is the best you can do, leave it in for now. If something sounds silly to you but is just the information a trusted reader asked for, leave it in. If you can’t think of the right detail exactly, think of something close that will do for now. Just keep fixing the draft — don’t worry about word limits yet. Get a story on the page that compels readers to keep going so they can learn more about you, and to exit the essay feeling like they’ve been on a reflective journey with the speaker and know more about life and the speaker at the end of the essay. You don’t have to take on weighty subjects for this to be true — we can learn a lot about someone and life from an essay about taking care of a sick cat or resolving to do better in a physics class or losing two front teeth.
Get More Response
You know the drill. Go back to your first trusted reader or readers or find new ones and read them this second draft. Get response in exactly the same three steps. You will figure out if your revisions worked or if you need to keep working on them. Most likely, you have done a lot of good work. but may find that some of what you have introduced hasn’t done what you want it to yet.
Remain quiet as you hear the responses. Take notes to use when you sit down to rework your draft.
Rework Your Second Draft
After you read this one to trusted readers you should be pretty close to having the essay you want. But you might have exceeded the length, character or word limit. Using your outline should have helped you find a focus from the get-go so you didn’t have to use space with too much set up and meandering around for your entrance into your topic. However, many of us write in “loose” sentences. We use more words than needed to convey information. Sentence tightening is a bit of an art, but you can get the hang of it.
Start by checking adverbs and adjectives — are the ones you used really necessary, or do words you have modified already contain the meaning you are emphasizing by using the modifier? For instance, many people write “very unique” when, if something is unique, it is one-of-a-kind. How much more one-of-a-kind can it be? Often the word unique is not needed either — the details show rather than tell.
In fact, the next thing you can do in tightening is look for sentences that retell what the images already showed and therefore the reader knows: “We came out of the ocean shivering with 30-degree water dripping off our skin. We were very cold.” It’s obvious, isn’t it? You may find you have done a lot of this kind of writing — the design part of your mind is working in images and the logical side wants to sum up what the images already said. Not necessary.
Next find out if you used a phrase when one word would have said the same thing — i.e. the phrase “in order to” can usually be replaced by the single word “to.”
Look for ways to use verbs instead of nouns: The phrase, “I decided on vanilla ice cream” uses fewer words than “I made the decision to have vanilla ice cream.”
Look for ways to make dependent clauses instead of using all independent clauses. In other words, the lines “My father became a dentist and he used his small motor dexterity to make model planes with me” can become “Using his small motor dexterity, my dentist father made model planes with me.” The second sentence represents a five-word savings. It doesn’t seem like much, but if you do this throughout the essay, the deleted words can add up.
Then you start seeing that some sentences merely repeat what the reader already knows just because it sounds good. Keep the sentence that comes first or the one you like the best and chop the other one. Here’s an example: “When Kelly and I came around the corner, our mouths opened in surprise. We were so surprised! We could hardly talk or even laugh. It was awesome.” How about stopping after the first sentence and getting on with the story? There is no need to build suspense and keep the reader, who wants to charge ahead, waiting. And there is no need to remind the reader that you know the whole story and the reader doesn’t yet.
Finally, you’ll see that some of the words you’ve used, thinking you had to connect events, aren’t necessary because the reader intuitively relates them: “I went into the kitchen and when I heard a loud noise in the living room, I quickly walked toward the kitchen door and into the hallway that leads to the living room.” This can be: “When I heard a loud noise coming from the living room, I ran to see what had happened.”
Thanks for joining us as we continue with Staying Sane through the College Essay Writing Process, an ongoing series that offers college applicants and their parents advice on how to stay on track for completing Ivy-worthy essays…without flying off the handle. We hope you enjoyed this next part of the series, and STAY SANE!
By Sheila Bender, former Accepted.com editor and founder of Writing it Real, a “community and resource center for writing from personal experience.”