Whether you are applying for a school program or looking to get published online here are some of my best tips for using essays to improve your writing skills.
Finding your story. Everyone has a story, no matter where you are from or how old you are. To identify what makes you unique take a deep look at the details of your prospective story. An example: Instead of being sporty in high school you were a debater.
Ask yourself the 5 questions:
Who is in the story – write character descriptions of each of the people from memory. Getting stuck? Try to dig out material such as letters, photos, or a school album. Get on the phone and call people who were there and see what details their memory provides.
Why did you do this – was it because you liked conflict? Or was it because you hated the outdoors? Try to hone in on why out of all the choices of things to do, you picked this one.
When is this story taking place – is it the late 80s in Wisconsin? Describe the atmosphere. Who was the President? What was in the news? What were your parents up to? Who was your best friend? What were your hopes and fears?
What is your subject – make sure you have enough technical knowledge to be able to describe it to a novice. Whether your subject is tennis, debate, camping, going to Vietnam to visit your grandmother – make sure your subject comes alive.
Where did this story take place – was it in a hotel room? A school bathroom? In a park?
Clarifying your arc. Who are you at the beginning of your story and what has changed by the end? Usually, there is a shift either in the psychology of the main character, a loss, gain, or physical change.
Identifying clichés. Clichés seep into our writing when we don’t want to go any deeper into a feeling or a moment. Circle your clichés, or ask a friend to do it, and try to slow down the moment and write in detail. The Oxford English dictionary defines a cliché as, “words and phrases that have been used so often that they’re no longer effective.” Not effective = edited out.
Adding surprise. Most entertaining stories have a surprise, even if it is just curiosity/tension about what will happen next. Surprise can come from an outside force or an internal choice. It can also come from using a limited POV narrator who is not aware of information outside of their purview. An example: kids not knowing what the adults know.
Noticing where your story is weak. Read your story out loud and if you find a spot where there is a lull that is a good place to cut. Another place to cut is where you start with too much backstory. Think about what your reader needs to know in order to follow the story. Think of the first scene in a movie – and start with a dramatic opening.
Bolstering your themes. Describing your story should take no more than one sentence. If it takes more you haven’t found your focus and may be trying to tell a story that is overbroad.
Making people feel. There don’t have to be good guys and bad guys, people are complicated in their motivations and expectations of success, but there does need to be empathy and understanding for the choices characters are making.
As the author David Shields wrote, “I really love that idea of the essay as an investigation. That’s all anyone’s life is.” Whether you are writing an entrance essay for school or writing for publication these steps will help you to fine-tune your process.