Get Responses from Trusted Readers or Listeners
When you have brought the draft as far as you can or as far as you feel like doing for this round, read it to someone who has heard it before, or better yet to someone new. Ask this person to give you response in these three steps:
- What words and phrases jumped out and stayed with them
- How they felt while reading the essay
- What they are curious to know more about
They do not have to, and actually shouldn’t, give you any reasons for their responses. The less they explain the better since it is your job to hear the problem areas and figure out your own way to fix them. The more you remain silent listening and taking notes on what they are saying, the better — in the end, your writing will not have you with it to explain itself, so you want to hear what the response is to the writing so far, not to what you have to add that is not on the page. After this response, you’ll continue working on your essay, and the next time around, the response you get should show you that you have fixed areas that were not yet working.
You may want to select another two or three trusted listeners or readers. Taking notes from a variety of responses can assist you in finding the words that will help you keep your ultimate readers interested. You will start to see patterns concerning missing elements, and also see a variety of ways to fix problems for your readers — where to give them more information, where to clarify something in a sentence, where to put a clear referent in for a pronoun, and where to break long confusing sentences into two or more sentences, for instance.
In Step One, readers’ memories make you realize that your writing, even it its early form, has made an impact, been listened to. There is no more powerful lesson about writing — what we say is what people hear. If we don’t say things fully, they don’t hear fully. Belt it out on the page! That they heard as much as they did is proof that you are worth listening to. This feeling gives you confidence and willingness to listen attentively to the Step Two and Step Three responses.
In Step Two, when readers tell you how your writing makes them feel, they have two categories of response. I call them Feelings A and Feelings B. Feelings A are those feelings you think the essay wants you to feel — excitement, pleasure, happiness that the writer made it, the sincerity of the writer, sometimes sadness, for instance. Everyone likes hearing and saying Feelings A — it is in keeping with the idea of being heard. Then there are feelings B: where the reader was kept from full satisfaction — feeling left out of knowing, disappointed not to have a description of something so they can see, hear, feel, taste, and touch it, confused. When they tell you their feelings as “I” statements, it is almost always fairly easy to see a way to put in the information readers need. Since we know what we have lived through, our minds don’t always feel the need to put everything out there on the page, but will when we learn others need the information we have omitted if they are to experience what we are talking about.
Lastly, your readers should tell you where they are curious to know more. They will probably pose many questions. You have to decide if what they want to know belongs in this essay or, if you fixed the essay according to the Feelings B responses, readers wouldn’t complain of digressions. A very common writing problem in early drafts is that the author writes his or her way to something important and then never shows or says what it is — i.e. if a writer claims a particular fight parents had affected the way he views education, but he doesn’t talk about the fight because he thinks it is too personal, he is going to leave his readers curious to know what the fight was. If someone claims that the turning point in her life was losing a friend to a car accident, but doesn’t say how old they were or how she heard about the loss or the ways she has missed that friend, readers will be curious to know more about her relationship to her friend.
Honoring the readers’ willingness to immerse themselves in your experience is half the battle of writing a good essay. This kind of honoring allows you to offer the tangible details of experience — what you heard, saw, smelled, tasted, and touched — because you know that others are interested. So often, especially when working against word and page limits, it is tempting to generalize and sum up to save words and often to sound more scholarly, more serious, and more important. Usually, this is a grave error — the admissions committee readers want to know you, and they can best learn about you by seeing you in your life.
What makes the details of the essay interesting is the way they collect meaning and become a way of expressing what you are learning from writing: that you are a skilled team player, a person who is able to communicate well with others, that you are interested in a social group made up of people from diverse backgrounds, that your family’s background has instilled important values, that making up your own mind is the most satisfying of experiences, or that you have made an impact on others in your community. Whatever it is, the details of your specific experience are what allow the reader to gain insight along with you as you write about your topic. When your writing is alive with insight that seems fresh — wrought from the details of the experience as a consequence of writing about them — readers feel interested and moved.
So remember, when readers are curious to know more, it usually means the writer has generalized where specifics would have told the story, or the writer has stopped before the story ends, or the writer has left out a chunk in the middle. When you have told readers too much, they will report in Feelings B that they are overwhelmed or confused, and you will decide which details are the right ones to take out. Another thing to remember is that taking out is usually easier than finding examples and details to put in. So, when you draft, put a lot in. You’ll have more to work with and so will your early responders.
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.”