Facebook Twitter Google Digg LinkedIn StumbleUpon Email


Are you struggling mightily to finish an essay for a particular prompt or school?  Sometimes the problem is not where you wound up, it's where you started.

There comes a moment in every writer's life (usually fairly early on) when she is forced to step back, assess her work with a cold, dispassionate eye, and say, calmly and confidently, "This is crap."  This is usually a bittersweet moment, coming as it does after hours (days?) of staring at a screen, fighting to make the words on the page suck less.

Sometimes the revelation comes in a more public (but equally upsetting) context -- you show it to your mom, or your best friend, and that doe-eyed, pitying look comes over her face -- oh, sugar, really?  That old story about the lawnmower again?  I hated that when you wrote about it for COLLEGE!

Look, I'm not going to sugarcoat it because it's kind of my job not to.  You wasted a bunch of time.  In your defense, it probably wasn't your fault.  But still, you might as well have spent that time listening to "All About That Bass" on repeat.  Because that's a thing people do.  Anyway, what's done is done.  The question is, what do you do now?

There is a simple way of doing triage when your essay is on life support -- vital signs that can tell you if your idea needs CPR or a shallow grave.

1.  Does it have juice?  Is there any actual emotional resonance to the idea for you?  Do you care about the subject matter, the people involved, the revelations?  Even with the most technical and business-minded essays, this is still a vital component, and if it isn't there for you, it certainly won't be there for anybody else.

2.  Is it honest and revealing?  Did you wind up contorting a few too many facts to make yourself look good?  Are you making a big deal of something that -- really, truly -- wasn't that important?  Are you showing the committee who you are, or who you want them to think you are?  And if you are applying some spin, is it at least convincingly backed up by evidence?

3.  Does it answer the question?  This is a simple one, but important nevertheless.  You'd be amazed at how many essays take on a life of their own independent of the prompt they are supposed to be answering!  So before you sink more hours into your magnum opus, be sure it is actually giving the school what they asked for!

If your answer to more than two of these questions is no, it's time to start over with a brand new brainstorm.  If you don't know how to do a brainstorm -- well, we'd be delighted to help.  But you can't start the future until you let go of the past.  Yoda said that.  I think.