Q&A | The writing coach

Find your voice and ace the essay

If you're a high school senior, writing the perfect college essay is sure to be high on your list of stressors. You're trying to make your essay so interesting that even a piece of fruit would be entertained.

If fruit could read, Roy Peter Clark would know how to entertain Granny Smith. Clark, vice president of the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg that owns the St. Petersburg Times, is an author and the guy whose love of writing and grammar makes all your English teachers swoon. His last book, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, is a staple in classrooms. He has been on the road to promote his new bestseller, The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English

We chatted with Clark via e-mail recently so he could help you with that essay.

Should the essay be matter-of-fact and serious, or can it have a touch of humor?

The key is that it should be interesting. And it needs to be interesting from the first sentence. I think the readers make a decision about the quality of the essay within the first 20 seconds, maybe sooner. So grab the reader by the throat. Not "I have always wanted to go to the University of Florida." But, "You know your parents want you to go to UF when your baby diapers were orange and blue."

What about vocabulary? Is this the time to whip out our SAT vocab list?

I would not use any word that felt unnatural to me, that did not represent my authentic voice. On the other hand, if I am a little brainiac and have been reading Sartre, I can make a reference to existentialism — especially if it's a humorous reference. It is okay to quote Shakespeare and Lady Gaga in the same sentence. Or better yet, Lady Gaga and Lady Macbeth. You can use the thesaurus, but only to remind yourself of words you already know.

How long should an applicant spend on an essay? Should someone else read it?

I would say that several hours should be spent on the essay, and not all in one day, but over two or three weeks. There are three stages to follow, at least, when coaching by a teacher or other adult would be helpful: when you are brainstorming for story ideas, when you have completed one full draft and after you have made a set of revisions.

Look, you may not be able to raise your grades or your SAT scores very much, but you can work hard to make this essay good. The essay needs to show your intelligence, your competence, your character and the best part of your personality. It takes time, and some help, to get there.

Do admissions officials want to read about an entire high school career, or do they care more for one particular learning experience?

This will sound controversial, but it may be a good idea to ignore their directions. In general, they are giving you prompts that are broad enough for you to find your best corner. You only have 500 words or so, so focus is the key. The best stories begin with some complication, like the day I had to break up a fight between good friends; or the day I tried to ask a girl to the dance and she told me she was going out of town that weekend, but showed up at the dance with someone else; or the day I walked out of class because the teacher made a racist comment. It can be a small moment, but a meaningful one.

How damaging are the tiny mistakes, such as a bit of wordiness, or too many long sentences?

Here are two tricks: 1) In the early versions of your story, don't worry about mechanics; just write until you've got a good focus and a full draft. 2) As you create revisions, each version should be more carefully proofread. Your last two drafts should be checked carefully. And someone older and smarter than you should check it over to make sure there isn't some embarrassing mistake. The occasional typo is not going to hurt you, but this essay really counts, so get to work, and do it right.

What are some tips for tackling the hardest part — the conclusion?

You can think of an ending before you write the essay so you can get where you're headed. You can use the end to echo the beginning, which in this type of essay is more important than the end. Just think of your ending as a reward for the reader for finishing the essay.

Find your voice and ace the essay 09/18/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 18, 2010 4:09pm]

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