Every theater production goes through weeks of rehearsal. Football teams practice formations and plays dozens of times before running them in games. Chefs create tasting menus, militaries run drills, surgeons do internships, and pilots fly simulations.
No one is expected to get it right — whatever “it” may be — on the first try.
All too often, though, high school students write one draft of an essay. They hit “save” then “print” (or “send”), and that’s that. Equally often, teachers receive essays, write comments, assign grades, and hand them back, and that’s that. The essays are never to be spoken of again.
I completely understand the constraints that students and teachers face. Even so, this is no way to write.
We must, of course, forgive the early writers who had to work with chisels, clay tablets, or papyrus. Otherwise, every serious writer who has ever put pen to paper or finger to keyboard will attest that real, earnest writing has almost nothing to do with first drafts — and everything to do with revisions.
Sure, a football team could get lucky and gain a first down on an untested play. But I’d need some pretty favorable odds to bet on that one. Likewise, high school writers might hit on some good ideas in that first draft of an essay on The Scarlet Letter or an analysis of the causes of World War II. But they will rarely be students’ best ideas.
Whereas math problems ask students to come up with the correct answer and programming exercises ask students to write code that performs a certain task, essays entail subjective elements: interpretation, analysis, and, most of all, the creation of ideas. A student might arrive at the answer to a math problem nearly instantly or be able to code an alpha and test it in short order. Those results will get full credit whether they took five minutes or five hours. Ideas, by though, can be infinitely refined. And they take time. Writing one draft and pretending that it’s done misses the point of formal writing.
Granted, the typical student in 11th grade Honors American Lit is not performing a double-bypass or landing a 787. Students are entitled to do as much or as little work as they want. As well, students have many classes and only so much time. But the general reluctance to revise, and the general reluctance to assign revision, prevents students from making the types of improvements — from life-changing epiphanies to minor rhetorical refinements — that can make serious writing educational, satisfying, and, indeed, special.
Whatever the topic may be, first drafts are often superficial. At best, they strive to be correct. They might get include the essential elements from the teacher’s rubric (thesis statement, body paragraphs, evidence). But they are not exactly essays.
A first draft might report that Hester is persecuted by a narrow-minded society and include plenty of quotes about how unhappy she is. Sure, but what of it? The third draft might report that the perils of trying to survive in an unfamiliar landscape required a level of group cohesion that modern people cannot fathom.
Another first draft might declare the United States’ 1960s accumulation of nuclear weapons to be unquestionably immoral. The fourth draft might reveal a more nuanced understanding of the defensive benefits of mutually-assured destruction or the influence of the military-industrial complex.
Yet another first draft might declare Marcel Duchamp to be silly and talentless. A subsequent draft might consider his fame against the backdrop of conservative artistic strictures, the exclusionary attitudes of elites, and the far greater absurdity of the Great War.
Some students may think I’m judging first drafts too harshly. They might feel that they are not capable of devising nuanced ideas and deep analysis. My guess is that many of those students have never actually tried. If they did, they are likely be pleasantly surprised with what they come up with.
Does that sound difficult? Of course. It is difficult. Like all other worthwhile endeavors, good writing requires work.
Now, what does that work entail?
By revision, I don’t mean a proofread. The student who writes a paper in the evening and then reviews it for typos the next morning is not revising. Nor is the student who writes a draft and then adds one more paragraph or one more quotation because a good idea struck him. Revision entails writing, setting aside (for at least a day per draft), reading afresh, and then being not just willing but in fact eager to make major changes. (Sometimes, it means being willing to trash a draft entirely.)
Those changes could be as fundamental as a new thesis. Indeed, many students write first drafts without really knowing what their papers are about. Changes could entail reinterpretation of quotations, reorganization of paragraphs, insertion of key explanations and bits of analysis. Changes can be inspired by the daydreaming that occurs when the writer is not sitting at the computer merely trying to achieve the assigned word count. Changes can be rhetorical, achieving clarity and forcefulness where previously there was muck and hesitancy.
Obviously, students cannot revise essays indefinitely. Many professional writers would revise forever, declaring all previous drafts to be garbage and all subsequent drafts to be marginally stronger, if editors did not impose deadlines. But even one serious revision can mean the difference between a touchdown and a sack. A second look at an idea could turn out to be exponentially stronger than the first.
Perhaps the most exquisite moment in the creation of a piece of writing is the moment when a new idea strikes unexpectedly. It might be in conversation with a friend. It might slap up in the back of the head and cause you to spill your coffee while you’re reading the newspaper. Quite often, it keeps you awake for just a moment longer before you fall asleep. If a students drafts an essay the night before it’s due, his opportunities for these epiphanies are essentially nil.
(In-class essays have their place, of course, but they serve different purposes. Quick thinking and instant recall of ideas and facts are, arguably, valuable faculties. But too often students and teachers treat take-home essays as if they’re just typed versions of in-class essays.)
Ultimately, the consequences in school are not very dire. Teachers always grade on a curve, and if everyone is turning in rough drafts, the grades will come out accordingly.
So far, I’ve presented this advice in the context of high school classes. I submit that it goes double for college application essays.
I don’t like to put pressure on students, but I also don’t like to lie to them either. College applications don’t receive grades. They receive a yes or a no. At many colleges, the yes is exceedingly hard to come by.
Strong essays do not, of course, assure admission. But they most certainly help. With rare exceptions, unrevised essays will not help.
Students who want to prepare for college essays must learn to revise. To practice, they should revise take-home essays as thoroughly as possible. If students don’t have take-home essays, they at the very least should mentally prepare themselves to approach their college essays differently than they approach school essays.
They should prepare to read their own writing, critique themselves, and, most importantly, welcome the new ideas, more eloquent phrasing, and more honest stories that will result. They might not show up on the second draft or even the fifth. But with enough work and enough optimism, good writing can emerge.
Of course, the best essays often start out with great topics. Students who have stories they’re dying to tell and opinions they’re dying to share lead to that elusive quality that is often called “voice.” I absolutely encourage students to get excited about their first drafts. But a great topic does not (usually) write itself. Students should be excited to revise them, keeping the energy and “voice” but making drafts clearer and smarter.
College essays present students with the chance, as I have written before, for applicants to interrogate themselves, tell their stories, and analyze those stories in ways that they may not previously have considered but that turn out to be rich, fascinating, and flattering.
A college essay is a chance for a student to present his or her best self. “Best” doesn’t advertise itself immediately (nor is “best” always positive — struggles and mistakes may be compelling too). And just as accomplished students have spent many hours on their coursework, science fair projects, summer internships, athletic skills, volunteer work, and all the rest, so must they spend many hours writing essays that describe and consider all of those accomplishments — from musical numbers to touchdown passes to perfect landings — as richly as possible.
About Josh: Veteran educator Josh Stephens has advised students on college applications for over a decade. His students regularly gain admission to the most selective colleges in the United States. Admissions in the 2020 application season include, for different students, Caltech, the University of Chicago, Stanford University, all campuses of the University of California, and Harvard, Princeton, Yale all five other colleges of the Ivy League.
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