How Not to Write an Essay

7:45 AM

It didn't take very many rejection slips to realize my career in fiction was over as soon as it'd begun. Of course my mother liked what I wrote (except for the times she didn't). Occasionally I'd work up a pitiful enough face to persuade my siblings to say nice things about the manuscript. My friends, prudently, painstakingly, encouragingly discouraged me from sending the stories out and incurring shame.

To put it another way, there were several ceremonial deletings of files and one heartbroken, piece-by-piece shredding of a hard copy. Not to mention the burials of printed manuscripts deep into the darkest part of my desk.

But essays -- here I've more acceptance. I don't know the Twenty Steps to Writing a World Famous Essay. But I do know a thing or two. No, come to think of it, I can't even say I know that much. All I know is how not to write an essay, from the many corrections, loss of awards and successes I've had in the history of essaymaking. You'll want a pad of sticky notes for this to look professional, but they're a snap to remember and implement merely because they're the commonest of commonsensical writing tips.

(Disclaimer: I worry that I sound like a snob or a know-it-all, so let me quickly say I've learned this primarily through my many blunders. I wish to give you the conclusion of my faux pas without the experience of having to learn it the hard way. Good to go?)

A few student-aged people here and there ask me to edit their work, which brings great joy if they're fun people and great consternation if they're not. Fortunately, 99% fall into the former category, and I can't tell you how much I enjoy writing back and forth with them on their wit, take on life and maturity in views. I enjoy it, I mean, up until the point of actually opening the manuscript. I honestly hate telling students who write side-splitting and/or intriguing emails to look into getting published...because they totally disappear once they hit the Word document.

Where formerly they were lively, articulate, personable and interesting, they fall prey to the pressure of essays: they empty themselves to try to stuff in stiff-collared diatribes on a certain issue. They attempt credibility by writing like a middle-aged community columnist (who is, in my humble opinion, the most boring writer in the world). Since they aren't professionals and know they aren't professionals, they aren't comfortable "owning" their topic, and so distance themselves from their work, writing as objectively as possible, not daring to insert too much of their own person. Like so:

Speaking at Northland International University today was Ken Ham, well-known author and spokesman for Answers in Genesis. He delivered a message on the relevance of Genesis in our world today. So often we think that Genesis is a fusty old book not worth our time, but Mr. Ham explained the importance of understanding our culture and thus understanding how Genesis fits into that. ...

That's fine for hometown newsletters where the spellcheck is broken, anyway. But when it comes to contests, successful blogging or (cross your fingers) getting published on websites and magazines, this just doesn't cut it. Yes, it introduces us to the main topic, writes fairly succinctly and uses fusty, but that doesn't compensate for being B-O-R-I-N-G. I fell asleep writing this.

How Not to Write an Essay: Detach your point of view, your personality and your life from the essay.

Your POV

Even for dull school reports or little blurbs in hometown newsletters where facts are more important than style, it's important to recognize your POV's importance and the weight you carry by putting pen to paper. Younger essayists tend to use high-sounding words, radical theses and exaggerated examples to hide the fact that they're freshly thirteen. That, they feel, establishes their authority. That grabs the readers' attention. That signals the audience to Listen up! -- I've got something to say.

It's perfectly natural to feel inadequate when writing about certain topics, especially when one seems to have little or inconsequential experience with the topic at hand. How much have we thirteen-year-olds actually gained in those short years, anyway? But turning ourselves into experts through writing like a thirty-year-old is like playing dress-up in Daddy's shoes and trench coat. It shows. If you don't have experience, just write out your opinion -- don't qualify it, excuse it, hide it or let it affect you from saying what you feel to be true. Truth is, after all, objective and not experiential.

Your Personality

General writers who've passed English Comp. and never expanded their horizons since then all write the same. They have a certain tone: formal, unnatural and yawn-inducing. I hate to be mean, because honestly my writing falls into that "highsounding" trap when I'm nervous, but there's a reason local community columnists aren't syndicated. I've read bulleted lists on how to write essays that are more sparkly, creative and interesting than professional diatribes on the subject.

Despite what we sometimes think, our ideas aren't all that new. Somebody else has thought of them and expounded on them before -- possibly better than we can, to be honest. So what's an amateur author to do? Write about them all the more -- from a personal perspective.

I'd like to give exact pointers on how this is done, but I'm not you. I don't know how you write when you're writing just for fun or how you crack jokes or what your points of wit and wisdom are. But let me say this: if your funny, warmhearted email is radically different from the voice in your polished essay, you're not letting your personality shine through.
TIP: Read your essays out loud before approving them. If you sound like you're speaking in a foreign language, you're probably not being yourself.
People tell me I write like I talk. And I do...most of the time. Until I start trying to write well. In fact, trying to write well is perhaps the biggest killer to creative essay-writing.

You are special. Dry essays are not. If your fingerprint runs all over the page, that makes your essay special -- and people will listen to you. Trust me.

Your Life

Though we're young, we have experiences.

Sometimes we forget that. We fear what other people think and we start writing professionally and profoundly on topics and leave out why we're writing in the first place: because our lives were changed by this.

Sadly for bland nonfiction, people remember stories more than essays. They remember characters more than facts. Capitalize on that. Insert little stories about how you've experience thus-and-such -- make yourself a character in the essay -- and if you can share more about you and your life, do so. It might distract from the main point, yes (if you're wordy like me). But it might attach a dry fact to a story, a person, and go deeper than just plain narration. Like this:

Two hours to Dunbar, Middle-of-Nowhere: that was the price we had to pay to see Ken Ham (Ken Ham, mind, and no other) preach to the student body and faculty at Northland Baptist Bible College. Ken Ham was one of those legendary men you knew would go down in history; and the people seeing one of those legendary men speak I envied. Still I cannot believe I actually saw him—in person, mind, and not any other way. I saw him ascend the podium. I saw the crowd laugh and heard their Amen. I sat at the next table over from him in the cafeteria during lunch. I suppose, as one of Those People now, I ought to be able to say something intelligent, or witty, or monumental about him.
You see the difference? Of course you do. You're a good student. So plaster your sticky notes above your writing desk and pledge to be yourself. Or why stop at a pledge?

You could write an essay on it.

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3 impressions

  1. Thanks for sharing Bailey! I've just started high school and am really devoting my time to writing. This post has helped areas I felt frustrated with :-)


  2. Just wanted to say--I've been reading your blog for a couple of weeks now and this is one of my favourite posts. I'm also a teen writer--though much improved from my days of fiction writing--and still lapse into the lofty, detached style when opening my essays. Really appreciated knowing I'm not the only one. :) Thanks for sharing.

  3. This is such a great post. I know it's so cliche to say, so forgive me, but really, that's what it comes down to.

    I'm often left in amazement at how well you write. Seriously, Bailey, you have a gift.

    Thanks for sharing your tips!


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