大學作文

Editing Your College Essay: 5 Hurdles and How to Clear Them

Also in: 繁中 (Traditional Chinese)

Can you catch them all?

You’ve finally finished a draft of your college essay. You’ve mined your experiences in and out of school, brainstormed and organized your thoughts, and crafted it all into a compelling narrative. Now it’s time to get down to the business of editing your college essay. You need to refine your draft, smooth over the rough edges, and polish it so it can shine. But how do you do that?

It’s not always easy to edit what you have written, in part because of the psychology of perception. When you read, you combine what’s on the page with what you expect to be there (Stockton). Although this happens all the time when you edit something you yourself have written, there’s an even stronger tendency to read into the text implied meanings, most of which remain unwritten.

Jumping this psychological hurdle requires creating some space between yourself and your writing, just as a runner needs space to clear a hurdle. Here are 5 hurdles to editing yourself along with practical advice on how to clear them.


Jump psychological hurdles by engaging in these practices.

1. When you read your essay, you insert what you meant to say rather than what you’ve actually written.

When you scan what you’ve written on the screen, you tend to read over typos, automatically fix subject-verb disagreements, word order problems, etc.

How to clear this hurdle:

Read what you’ve written out loud. An attentive audience, such as a favorite plush doll, action figure, or imaginary friend, helps. When you hear what you’ve written with your ears, you become part of the audience as much as the writer. Reading aloud helps you detect omitted words, awkward phrasing, and odd constructions. You can also more easily detect cliches, wordiness, and lack of clarity (Loft). 


2. You’re emotionally invested in particular words or turn of phrase.

It took time, effort, and focus to eke out that essay. Sometimes it can feel like that’s your life’s blood spilled on the page.

How to clear this hurdle:

If something doesn’t belong, move it elsewhere. I keep a section called “notes’ within the document I’m working on (I have one going right now). By moving what doesn’t belong there, you have the option to return to that phrase, sentence, or entire paragraph and find another home for it elsewhere. It feels less taxing to move something you’ve written rather than just deleting it wholesale. FYI: I hardly ever end up using something I’ve moved into the notes section. Although it has nearly the same effect as deleting, it doesn’t involve the emotional cost of “killing your darlings,” as Faulkner supposedly put it.


3. You can explain what you want to say to someone else, but it’s hard to get it down on the page.

How many times have you explained what you’re writing about to a friend or adult only to hear yourself say a much clearer version of what’s on the page? It’s as if when the hands start moving over the keyboard or paper, there’s a short-circuit in the brain.

How to clear this hurdle:

Fix this disconnect between the speaking and writing process by using a voice-to-text feature on your device. It’ll disengage the writing part of your brain and unleash your potential by directly accessing the speaking part. You’ll then generate a record of what you’re saying. Don’t forget to look over what the voice-to-text algorithm recorded to make sure it caught what you said correctly.


4. It sounds off, but you’re not sure how to make it “better.”

If you suspect there’s something not quite right, you’re probably right.

How to clear this hurdle:

Ask yourself some basic questions about the flow of the text. Focus on each element of the draft in turn:

  • Consider word choice. Do you have passive verbs rather than active ones? Are you unsure of the meaning of any words? Look them up.
  • Take a look at each sentence. Are the ideas stated clearly? Are you repeating the same ideas? Do you have long, convoluted sentences that make the reader work hard to grasp your meaning? While there’s nothing wrong with carefully crafted long sentences, shorter sentences are generally clearer and more readable.
  • Now look at the paragraphs. Does each paragraph have a controlling topic sentence? Does each sentence in the paragraph belong where it is?
  • Finally, examine the transitions and overall structure of the essay. Does each paragraph make sense in the context of the essay as a whole? Does the beginning of each paragraph logically follow from the conclusion of the previous one?

Turn your essay upside down.

5. It sounds fine; you can’t find any obvious improvements (the opposite of the hurdle 4 above).

Ever try to draw a famous manga or Disney character, only to get the proportions wrong? The head’s too big, the ears are lopsided, and the body looks out of proportion.

How to clear this hurdle:

Try this trick from the painter’s studio: turn the image upside down. Seeing an image upside down activates the right hemisphere of the brain, enhancing your imagination and spatial recognition. This lets you focus only on what you see.

Use a similar strategy as you try to edit yourself. Turn your essay upside down. That is, read your essay backward. Taking things out of context helps you notice small details you might otherwise miss. Start with the last sentence. Now read the second to last sentence, and so on until you reach the beginning. This strategy is particularly effective for detecting typos, misplaced modifiers, and sentence fragments.

To edit effectively, it’s essential to gain a fresh experience of your writing, the way a first-time reader would experience it. Following the practical advice above will help you create the space you need to clear each hurdle. As you practice, you’ll find that you can more easily read what you’ve actually written, and strengthen your capacity to edit yourself.


References

Lott, Deborah A. “Reading Your Work Aloud—a Crucial Step in Your Writing Process,” LAEWG, September 20, 2016.

Stockton, Nick. “What’s Up With That: Why It’s So Hard to Catch Your Own Typos,” Wired, August 12, 2014.

Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.

Also in: 繁中 (Traditional Chinese)

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