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Sharpening your writing

Two weeks ago, Kenneth provided a broad overview of the process of crafting your college admissions essay. He contrasted the analytical writing required in academic courses with the more freeform nature of powerful narrative nonfiction. And he encouraged you to start discovering your uniqueness early. Here, I want to examine writing more granularly. How do you hone your writing early on and prepare yourself for college admissions and beyond? These are some tips that I have accrued over my years as a student.

Read top-notch writing. When I began meeting with my high-school college counselor as a freshman, she suggested that I subscribe to The New Yorker to learn from its contributors’ sublime writing. Most of the reading assigned in high schools comes from historical sources whose style does not reflect that of modern written English. Therefore, these texts should not be used as a model for your own writing. Affirming my college counselor’s original recommendation, my undergraduate course in creative non-fiction at Yale drew heavily on The New Yorker for its assigned reading. Other publications of similar caliber are Harper’s Magazine and The Atlantic. I started reading selections from each week's issue of The New Yorker before bed and quickly realized that the magazine has something for everyone. For those who prefer fiction, each issue comes with an original short story. The nonfiction pieces range in length from two-page blurbs on current events to extended pieces about a variety of topics. One of my favorite articles, “Crunch,” details how farmers have bred the dizzying array of apples we find in today’s supermarkets from three original strains: red delicious, McIntosh, and golden delicious. After finishing that piece, I felt like a bona fide apple connoisseur.

This brings me to another point about reading to learn how to write better—it should be fun. One of the privileges of being an adult is that if I don’t like something that I’m reading for any reason, I can simply stop (and then write scathing review on Amazon). Search for writing that speaks to you, captivates you, and makes you a more interesting person in turn.

Be blunt and concise. Probably the most egregious misconception that rears its head in the writing of high schoolers, college students, and even graduate students is the ill-founded belief that “good” writing must be long-winded and difficult to understand. It doesn’t. (See how effective that two-word sentence is?) You should view your writing as a one-way, rehearsed conversation with your readers. The ultimate goal is to communicate effectively. Keep in mind that, in this mode of communication, the reader cannot ask for any clarification.

In my AP U.S. History class, my teacher would deduct points if our thesis statement exceeded 25 words in length. At the time, this was aggravating. But I now realize how useful a lesson it taught me. Whenever I write or revise now, I’m constantly asking myself whether I can distill relatively long phrases and sentences into something shorter and more intelligible. I eschew certain turns of phrase that add no meaning or clarity. For example, instead of writing “in order to test this prediction” or, even worse, “for the express purpose of testing this prediction,” write “to test this prediction.” Use adjectives and adverbs judiciously. Always ask yourself whether the word you’re using to modify another alters a sentence's meaning in a critical way. Must a sloth necessarily be described as “slow”? Would it be more appropriate to describe something “really good” as “excellent”? Does the verb or noun already carry the meaning you’re trying to impart with an adverb or adjective? For instance, can the act of “slaughter” ever be something but “vicious” or “merciless”? If a word doesn’t add something substantial or necessary, delete it.

Use words deliberately. One of the most powerful assets of the English language is its semantic breadth. Largely, this arises from its uniquely cosmopolitan origins. At its root, English is a Western Germanic language. The simplest words—such as those for family members, numbers, time, and common animals—have been passed down from Old English with slow evolution. However, when William the Conqueror sailed from Normandy and usurped the English throne in 1066, French suddenly became the language of the elites and percolated into the native tongue of the island. Modern words with French origins sound more refined and stiffer to the native English speaker’s ear. Consider, for instance, the phrases “hearty welcome” and “cordial reception.” A thesaurus will tell you that these phrases are equivalent in meaning, but you know otherwise. The former “hearty welcome,” Germanic in origin, feels friendly and familiar, whereas the latter “cordial reception,” French in origin, conveys greater formality. As English has attained global status, loanwords from other languages have poured in: breeze and patio from Spanish, tycoon and emoji from Japanese, paparazzi from Italian, and barbecue from Arawak.

The sheer size of the English lexicon is both a boon and a burden. We have a vast array of words to express ourselves lucidly, yet as writers, we are also tasked with employing our words precisely. Don’t use thesauruses to substitute a more abstruse word for something that is clear. Instead, use them to identify the word that best captures what you are trying to convey. Always check the definition in the dictionary if you’re not sure what each word connotes. Let me show you what I mean. Consider the following sentence about World War I: “The assassination of Franz Ferdinand caused Austria-Hungary to declare war against Serbia.” Let’s focus on the verb caused and consider some synonyms: occasioned, prompted, provoked, induced, and inspired. The original word is bland at best but also clear in its description of past events. Is there a word among our limited synonyms that imbues this action verb with a more specific meaning? Notice that the words occasioned and induced in this context would connote a less forceful causal relationship between the assassination and the declaration of war. On the other hand, induced and particularly inspired carry a positive meaning and imply that the goal here was to ignite global conflict and that it was, indeed, a noble objective. Provoked, however, injects the right intensity into the sentence and indicates outrage on the part of Austria-Hungary, precisely what we’re seeking. The peril of using a loaded word like provoked, of course, is that we are technically staking a claim—that is, we are interpreting past events rather than simply reporting them. Here, it seems justified.

Write what you know. I want to end with this important lesson that I learned in college. In a freshman seminar I took on Islam and modernity, we had to write short essays every two weeks. The professor was brutal. After each assignment, he would read aloud the essay he considered the best. The first week, it was his own response to the question he had posed. The second week, I was delighted to hear my writing in his thick German accent. I smiled. But when he reached the end of my essay, he paused and then declared, “While this was the best essay I read this week, I still gave it an A– rather than an A for a single reason. In the second sentence, the author stated something that was demonstrably false.” I frowned in disappointment, but that lesson has never been lost on me. If you’re going to put something in writing, make sure it’s true, or qualify it appropriately. In many humanities courses in both high school and college, you can get away with floating absurd claims and unchecked speculation. But sooner or later, it will catch up with you. Writing with confidence demands that you are the master of your material. If your readers catch you making assertions that are either untrue or not backed by evidence, they will immediately discredit you. Cherish your authenticity.


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