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 tryi