What I learned rereading my first college essay

In the heat of finishing an essay you think to yourself…

What if really had nothing to say? What if none of my arguments are true? What will I have left?

Just imagining the effort required to revise your work can be exhausting. So much so that you skip it altogether.

Revising is tedious, but it doesn’t have to be as tedious as you’re making it.

The anxiety you feel before turning in your work can make your eyes glaze over. You try to reread your paper but you’re too worried to actually see any of its problems. You overlook misplaced punctuation. You can’t tell whether your conclusion really sums up what you were trying to say.

All that is what happens when I write, anyway, both now and in my last four years of college. I even struggled in high school.

I dreaded rewriting so much that I avoided it at all costs. I procrastinated so that I wouldn’t have the time.

As a result I never saw the problems right in front of me, in every paper.

I’ve decided to revise a few of my term-papers from college. They’re not pretty.

They’re impossible to understand. The arguments don’t hold, their evidence is has no weight. They’re arranged haphazardly because I was determined to come up with a new structure every single time. The effect is that my main questions and points are buried when they’re there at all.

Reading and revising your work – whether it be an essay, proposal, blog post, etc. – will be extremely nerve-racking without a strategy.

There are so many potential ways to go about it. Do you correct for punctuation? Change passive constructions to active? Should you attack your main idea head on, focusing on the arguments and nothing else? Where do you begin?

To avoid the pain of diving in and fixing all the problems that make your writing a chore to read, you decide to put it off or not revise at all. That’s what I always did.

If you don’t revise now the pain will find you when you’re least expecting it.

If you’ve submitted an essay without revising, you’ll be docked points for simple problems that you could’ve easily fixed. If you’ve submitted an unrevised proposal, good luck being granted what you were asking for. I hope it receives more than raised eyebrows from its readers.

The real pain comes from realizing you could be far better right now if you had been a tiny bit less lazy the last time you wrote.

Luckily you can avoid the pain by taking an extra hour, today, to read and correct what you’ve written.

I don’t want you to find yourself in a situation like I describe above. So here’s a strategy for rereading and evaluating your essay that will help you find what you’re really trying to say. After all, having a point, an idea, or a question is the whole reason you’re writing in the first place. Isn’t it?

Note: Don’t use this method if you think you’re already a hotshot writer.

It will tear down your delusions in a heartbeat. It’s brutal. I didn’t expect it when I first started this project, but this approach has been hugely motivating. It has shown me where I stand and how to improve.

This technique is not designed to reduce the hard work involved in editing and rewriting. It is only meant to provide you with a more effective way of doing it.

I’ve tried two distinct ways of approaching the revising process. The first is and always was far more tormenting and no where near as effective. I’ll describe it anyway so you know what to avoid.

Approach #1: Begin at the beginning.

You read your essay as you would read anything else. From the first paragraph onward. You first read the evidence for your conclusion, then the conclusion itself.

You ask as you read: “Given these facts and ideas, does my conclusion really follow?”

Here’s the catch. You don’t know the main point until the very end. Revising this way you risk finding that your very first ideas are wrong, and that you have written your entire essay on shaky ground. It hurts to think about.

Let’s say you’re revising a ten-pager. On the first page you find a mistake – an overly bold or unwarranted assertion. Now you have nine pages left totally ungrounded.

Devastating.

You’ve undermined your entire essay on the first page. What can you possibly do now? Actually, I don’t know, which is why I recommend this second way.

Approach #2: Begin at the end.

Don’t revise your essay in the same direction you wrote it.

If you started writing from your introduction and worked straight to the end, read it from the conclusion backwards. Start from the end – the very last paragraph – and work your way to the introduction.

Begin with your final conclusion – the very last sentences of your piece. Say to yourself, “Ok, if this is where I ended, how did I get here? Is this a logical conclusion, based on good evidence?”

You then look backwards for the nearest supporting idea. If you find none you toss out your conclusion. Luckily, with this approach, you still have the nine beginning pages of your essay to work with. There’s a lot less at stake, so you can relax.

Notate your essay like this for an even more effective revision.

Beginning in the last paragraph, note each major point or question starting with 1.a, then 1.b, 1.c, etc.

Evernote Snapshot 20140911 184749

I didn’t use letters the first time, as you can see. I don’t recommend this because you’ll get mixed up if you have more than one big idea in your paper.

The purpose of this is to trace a single idea backwards through the essay, and to find its source as near as possible to the introduction. It works surprisingly well.

At each point on your way back through the paper you can summarize your argument. “I thought Z because of Y. I thought Y because of X, and so on.” At each point ask yourself “Why?” Why is this important? Why is this true? Then you look for the answers as you march on.

By asking “Why?” you heighten your sensitivity for evidence. You become more demanding of your ideas. You want to know whether what you’ve said is actually true.

Finally, after making your way through your essay using this process, and having found the question or point that inspired your paper, turn around and make your way forward. Gather the points you marked into an outline.

From there try to rephrase those points as questions. An easy way to do that is to read each point and ask “So what?” or “Who cares?” By asking this you make sure that each point is a meaningful one, one that will make the whole essay more interesting than if it were left out. When I did this, the resulting list of questions revealed to me what I had been meaning to write all along.

Evernote Snapshot 20140911 184517

This is the most clearly stated the parts of my freshman essay have ever been.

You’ll see that you do have something interesting in mind, even if that idea needs fewer pages to explain.

Try this, and when you’re done see whether or not you have a stronger and more compelling vision of your own ideas.

P.S. If you use this, or if you have an idea about the above method, let me know in the comments below!