In a recent meeting with a student, he confided that he was nervous about writing his first draft, that he didn’t think he was a very good writer, and while he had good ideas in his head, he had a hard time translating that to the page. I tried to put him at ease, telling him that this was just a first draft and we’d have plenty of time to develop it and strengthen it and tweak it to make it better and better. I also told him that this kind of writing is incredibly different from the other types of writing he’s done in the past, mainly formal academic writing. Because this is a new style of writing, more personal and conversational, I hoped he would find it easier to approach. But just in case that wasn’t true, I also shared a few workarounds that I use when I feel stuck.
Record and Transcribe: Sometimes, we have a much easier time speaking our ideas than writing them down, particularly when we’re trying to tell a story. And the goal with a college essay is to nail that conversational tone, which may be easier to do if you’re actually talking out loud. One thing I suggest is recording yourself telling the story and then transcribing it. From there, you can edit it into more of a cohesive narrative and even move different sections around if you find a better flow. For students who are having a particularly hard time taking the first step, this can be really helpful.
Send an Email: There is something so intimidating about the blinking cursor at the top of a blank Word or Google document. It’s just sitting there, waiting impatiently, metaphorically tapping its foot until you do something. Ugh. But I never feel the same pressure with a blank email window. I send emails all day, some long, some short; some I’ve given a lot of thought to, and some I’ve just dashed off. But emails somehow feel like much less of a big deal than a document. So try to write your essay in an email. You can even start off by talking to a friend or family member before you get into telling them your story. Again, this is a conversation, so don’t be afraid to make it feel that way. (Note: I do NOT recommend formatting your actual college essay as an email to a friend; this is the kind of gimmick that seems like a brilliant idea but is usually just a distraction.)
Start in the Middle: Many students feel pressure to nail that first line of their college essay, to make it dramatic and attention-grabbing without being cliché. But sometimes, they focus so much on perfecting that first line that they can’t do anything else until it’s done. If that sounds like you, don’t start at the beginning – start in the middle. When I brainstorm an essay with a student, I send them off to write with a detailed paragraph-by-paragraph outline of the overall arc of their story. There’s no reason they have to start with paragraph one and then write paragraph two and so on. We spend a lot of time in the editing process adding and adjusting transitions between paragraphs anyway, so feel free to start in the middle. And maybe once you know where the story is going, you’ll have a better idea of how it starts.