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Editing Your College Essays

ohio_momohio_mom Registered User Posts: 4,045 Senior Member
edited July 2005 in College Essays
Your college essay is complete. You’ve poured your heart and soul into it ... but it’s too long by 100 words, and could use a bit of polishing before it goes out into the world. It’s time to change from being an author to being a copy editor, and to drop the emotional attachment to your words. Remember ABC: Always Be Concise. Consider the word limit to be analogous to a speed limit--you don't have to reach or even exceed it and it's definitely not a race to see how many words you can use.

Many of us that do some form of copy-editing professionally use a series of editing passes, each concentrating on a specific type of problem or problems. Doing so lets you distance yourself from your essay – and copy edit your own work more effectively.

1. Begin by reading the essay out loud. Doing so uses a different neural pathway than reading silently. If the application deadline is looming, this step will probably catch a great many errors in a short amount of time.

2. Consider the tone of the essay, and avoid pretentiousness. Showcase yourself without bragging. Don't be shy, don't hide behind formal and ornate prose...let the adcoms see *you* as a person. Write as if you were telling the story or having a conversation with a respected adult you don't know too well. If you think your essay sounds egotistical and pompous, chances are your intended audience does, too.

3. Remove tangential paragraphs. If a paragraph is not integral to your essay, it will lead the reader down a dead-end path and just leave them there. The flow of the essay will be disrupted, and the reader won’t be so eager to see what’s next.

4. Check to see if there is too much setup and explanation in your essay. It’s natural to go into great detail when first explaining or describing something. These passages can be frequently shortened or deleted without loss of clarity. The adcoms, though adult, are not stupid.

5. Go through the essay and remove every – or almost every - instance of ‘to be.’ Using the active voice will almost always shorten and improve your essay.

6. Next, remove redundant phrases. You don’t have the luxury of repeating yourself for emphasis in a 500 or 250 word essay.

7. Finally, remove redundant words. If a sentence is equally clear without a word, then it should be cut.

8. Make sure your essay makes grammatical sense. Check your tenses. Trace each modifier (adjective, prepositional phrase, etc.) back to the item it's describing; match each subject with its predicate. Check specifically for misplaced modifiers and singular subjects with plural predicates, e.g., "none of them know."

9. Check your spelling and word usage. Catch all the common errors like "noone" for "no one." Do not rely on spell checking software; it will not catch misused homonyms ("their" for "there") or misspelled words or typos that are other words "hat" instead of "that", "to" instead of "too").

10. Look at your word choices carefully. Don't use the ten-dollar word when the fifty-cent one will do. Using ostentatiously literary words usually leads to problems of tone.

11. Good writing is not the result of a democratic process; it requires a unified vision and execution. When seeking the editing advice of others, don't let their suggested changes change the overall "voice" of your essay unless the voice needs changing. By incorporating too many "editing suggestions" for word changes, sentence structure, etc., the essay can quickly fall apart and lose the sense that it's coming from you.

12. Wait at least a day (if you can), and then read the essay again - OUT LOUD - and really listen this time! With all the deletions and changes you have made, chances are good that you introduced a few errors or typos in the process. This last pass is needed to correct your corrections.

(Thanks to the other parents that helped with this project - SBmom, cangel, TheDad, andi, mootmom, Little Mother, digmedia - and whomever I'm forgetting!)
Post edited by ohio_mom on

Replies to: Editing Your College Essays

  • newtnewt Registered User Posts: 1,413 Senior Member
    While the ability to write concisely is necessary, one should not be worried about going over the word limit if the extra words are not superfluous and if the essay would be hurt by removing them.

    The heart of an essay is flow. If you write an essay in 400 words, but it is choppy, it will be a pain to read and it will seem like it is well over 500 words. However, if you write an essay that simply flows from one sentence to the next, the essay length is not as important.

    Remeber, it is quality, not quantity that matters. Ideally, you would fit all of your "quality" into the 500 word requirement, but if it simply doesn't work that way, and every word has meaning behind it, don't hack away at your essay to fit a silly word limit.

    My essays were about 830 and 600 words each, and I still got in. In fact, I am almost sure it was my essays that got me in.

    Trust yourself and write straight from your heart. Don't write what the college wants you to say. Instead, be yourself and stand up for something.

    Show your passion through your essay.
  • happygoluckyhappygolucky Registered User Posts: 159 Junior Member
    Thank you so very much ohiomom, SBmom, cangel, TheDad, andi, mootmom, Little Mother, digmedia, and everyone else who provided these GREAT suggestions!

    I for one, will put it to good use! Thanks again!
  • TheDadTheDad Registered User, ! Posts: 10,228 Senior Member
    What's interesting is that this document is that rare thing, a successful group editing project, though kudos to Ohio_Mom for being the driving force and chief visionary.

    Screenplay, anyone?
  • ohio_momohio_mom Registered User Posts: 4,045 Senior Member
    LAgal and happygolucky,
    I'm glad you are finding this useful. My son tells me that copy editing is just now being taught in his AP class. It's definitely a skill that can be taught - but teaching it just after most essays are due (if ever) seems a little unfair to you students.

    Newt -
    "Trust yourself and write straight from your heart. Don't write what the college wants you to say. Instead, be yourself and stand up for something."
    Absolutely true. It's a temptation to project what you think the school wants to see, but that will result in a bland and inauthentic essay.

    About length - some on-line submissions truncate at a certain character length, so some students will have to shorten their essays. Editors also have no qualms about this, so it's not a bad skill to pick up.

    ... and deadlines:

    "The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really wanted to say." --Mark Twain's Notebook
  • xiggixiggi Registered User Posts: 25,441 Senior Member
    What a neat contribution to the forum. Thank you for taking the time to write the post.
  • haydenhayden Registered User Posts: 4,415 Senior Member
    To all of you who contributed to the list - thanks. Good job.

    Editing is truly important. Reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Johnson. In a letter to a friend, he apologized for writing such a long letter, but said he did not have time to write a short one.
  • TheDadTheDad Registered User, ! Posts: 10,228 Senior Member
    I believe that was Voltaire...or perhaps great minds just think alike. But yes.
  • grxkngrxkn Registered User Posts: 382 Member
    Thanks for compiling that. :)
  • just_forget_mejust_forget_me Registered User Posts: 2,244 Senior Member
    Great advice! I do think it's sort of ironic that you use "ostentatiously" as opposed to "obviously."
  • xiggixiggi Registered User Posts: 25,441 Senior Member
    It seems that great minds are not above borrowing from others ...

    In modern times, the short letter story is usually attributed to Mark Twain.

    Earlier mentions, however, exist in french, german, and probably latin.

    "Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n'ai pas eu le loisir
    de la faire plus courte.--I have only made this letter rather long
    because I have not had time to make it shorter."
    Blaise Pascal. Lettres Provinciales, 16, Dec.14,1656.

    Some researchers have attributed the phrase to Cicero via Goethe: "In Der grosse Duden, vol. 2 "Stilwoerterbuch," 1963, p. 14 one reads: "Der
    junge Goethe schreibt einmal an seine Schwester: 'Da ich keine Zeit
    habe, Dir einen kurzen Brief zu schreiben, schreibe ich Dir einen
    langen,' ein Gedanke, den er uebrigens bei Cicero aufgelesen hat." Sources and translations omitted!

    So it seems that the saying might go back as far as Cicero.
  • editrixeditrix Registered User Posts: 222 Junior Member
    "Ostentatiously"--i.e., designed to impress people--works fine.
  • TheDadTheDad Registered User, ! Posts: 10,228 Senior Member
    Xiggi: plagiarize, let no one else's work evade your eyes, only please to call it research.

    As the one responsible for "ostentatiously," Editrix has it nailed: the difference between it and "obviously" is in the intention to impress.

    As a general observation on use of language, differences of connotation versus denotation seem to frequently elude many people.
  • just_forget_mejust_forget_me Registered User Posts: 2,244 Senior Member
    editrix-I'm not disagreeing with the use of the word. I just found it funny that in a rule telling you to avoid using "10 dollar words" the author used a 10 dollar word.
  • ohio_momohio_mom Registered User Posts: 4,045 Senior Member
    thanks for the quotations. I couldn't locate the one from Mark Twain - otherwise I would have included it in the OP. The attribution to Pascal is appropriate, somehow.

    well, I'd call it more of a five dollar word, but point well taken. If you want to read a passage stuffed full of ten, twenty and fifty dollar words, look at the Introduction to Seamus Heaney's translation of "Beowulf." I needed my dictionary to wade through it.
This discussion has been closed.