The Perfect Story? It Might Not Be What You Think

One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever heard came at a book-talk with Etgar Keret, an Israeli flash fiction writer who seamlessly weaves through the whimsical, the fantastical, and the intense. Asked what stories he chose to write about, he said (something like) this: “If I see something sad or funny on my way home from work and I say to my my wife ‘I just saw the saddest or funniest thing’ and she says ‘that’s so sad’ or ‘that’s so funny,’ I don’t write that story. If she says ‘I don’t understand,’ then I get to work. I know I have a job to do.” 

From an author who can build whole worlds and knock them down in (roughly) the space of a college essay, there’s wisdom to this way of thinking. A college essay shouldn’t be a mere rehashing of the impressive thing you did or the harrowing event that happened to you — it should come alive in the way it’s told. After all, the wording of an essay is the essay, not just the way it’s transmitted. I always tell my students that the most important thing a college essay can do, as is true of all good writing, is transmit a piece of your mind to the reader. If an admissions officer enjoys experiencing the world through your brain — even if that means re-experiencing ordinary things — they’re more likely to want to see how your mind responds to college classes, or what kind of research questions your mind will craft. 

The problem is, a lot of smart people feel they’re poor writers, but this has more to do with unfamiliarity with process than anything else. If you’re starting to feel that “What makes a good essay?” and “How is a good essay written?” are really the same question, you’ve already understood most of what writing is about. Which is why I’ve decided to share a few tips on how I craft essays, and what a productive process might look and feel like. 

Don’t write sequentially 

There’s nothing more stifling than the feeling of “I want to write about A and about B, but I don’t know how to get from one to the next.” My advice: write A and write B, and don’t worry about the transition just yet. Sometimes, just a few words is enough to move between topics. And chances are, if you’re not inspired to write us from one place to another, readers won’t feel enthusiastic about wading through it. 


Ignore word limits 

People often shy away from complex ideas because they’re afraid of expressing it all in under 650 words. Yes, it’s a pain, but it’s always better to write your ideas out fully and cut later, even if that means cutting more than you save. Besides, cutting words makes you think more critically about what’s relevant, and it’s a great exercise in concision. One of my favorite moments to share with students is the time, senior year in college, when I submitted a 200-page novel to my thesis adviser. We had a ten minute meeting about it. “It looks good,” he said. “Now cut it by a third.” Walking out of his office, I had no idea what I would cut, but I managed, and my writing improved greatly from it. 


Embrace your nerves 

This, to me, is the most important. In college, I had a habit of pulling all-nighters before turning in stories to fiction workshops, which meant a lot of time alone feeling nervous. I expected my anxiety would go away after a few rounds, but it didn’t, so I made a rule for myself to deal with my nerves: If I didn’t freak out a little bit before sending a story out, it was too safe. To this day, I still use fear as a gauge of whether I’m writing something worthwhile--whether my work is doing anything. And there’s value at looking at college essays that way, too. Letting a committee of middle-aged strangers into your inner mind is by nature a nerve-racking thing, so if you’re feeling too collected, it might mean you could dig a bit deeper.