1) Make it Personal
Does your essay tell a personal story? Does it have a voice? Your voice? Or can it be interchanged with an essay by Typical American College Senior? If you took your name off the essay and left it on your friend’s or teacher’s desk, would he or she be able to identify the writer?
2) Make it Specific
Later, we’ll talk more about choosing topics. But my biggest one-word tip? Narrow. If you don’t think your topic is narrow enough, it probably isn’t. Also, if your story doesn’t have a specific beginning and ending point (preferably in a time span that takes less than an hour) you may be left with a whole lot of vagueness—and boring, general language—on your hands.
Once, a student of mine wanted to write about his trip to Europe. Travel essays are risky in themselves (we will talk about that in Topics), but he insisted.
“Okay,” I said. “We can give it a try. But narrow it down.”
So he chose France.
“Smaller,” I said.
“You’re getting closer.”
“The Mona Lisa?”
I gave him a sideways glance. “Everyone talks about the Mona Lisa when they talk about the Louvre.”
“But that’s the thing! I wasn’t into the painting,” he explained. “I liked another one in an adjoining gallery, a painting everyone else ignored for Mona.”
And, boom: we had a topic.
3) Make it Vivid
You want your reader to enter into your story, not peer at it from the outside. While you don’t want to include details just for details’ sake, you need to engage the reader enough to want to emotionally invest in your story. This essay is ultimately about you, of course, not the swampy pulp of orange juice that stuck in your teeth that jittery first morning at your new school. But that swampy pulp is detailed enough to help me feel, and experience, your story with you. And make me want to read on.
4) Make it Narrative
Not an essay-essay. A story-essay. You know. In case you haven’t gotten that idea yet.
5) Make it Natural
You’re going to put a lot of time into this. A lot of drafts. You should. If there’s ever a time to polish a piece of writing, it’s now. However, this is not the time to try out your newest “impressive” vocabulary words or imitate James Joyce.
As Mary Henry of Purdue says, “I like the real stuff. Students shouldn’t try to sound like professors. Essays should be
conversational and paint a picture.”
It’s a balance: sharp but informal; entertaining but analytical.
Be you, but be the best you, you can be. Getting an idea? In the next chapter, we’ll look at a sample student essay and see how the writer brilliantly incorporates the yes-yes’s above!