It occurred to me, as I was working on a couple academic papers for school, that there’s a lot about my writing process that has substantially changed just in these past few months. And while, of course, a personal statement for a university application is far different from a research paper on [insert any classic Greek text here], there are skills I’ve learned for approaching the latter that can easily carry over.
1. Start with exploratory prose
A small percentage of you may very well do this already, but I’d imagine most (like myself) aren’t too fond of, or simply just aren’t capable of, writing completely without reservations about the unacceptably low guck that’s coming onto your screen.
You want to be editing as you go, reading back those few lines you wrote, refining them until they sound pretty, and then moving on. But when you prevent yourself from writing without stopping, without inhibitions, you can very easily sacrifice what would have been your best ideas.
Think of it this way: the writing process is like a clogged pipe, and as you unclog it, the dark sludgy stuff is going to come out first, eventually getting you to purer, free-flowing water. So utterly disregard technical concerns about grammar and punctuation. Let sentences be cringe-worthy in their simplicity. Repeat that one word eight times within the same paragraph. Exploratory prose (aka: your first draft) is solely meant to unclog the pipes, to reach some of those more intriguing thoughts that can then be branching off points for later revised drafts.
2. Seek out major revisions
It should be a given to you that, if we are starting with exploratory prose, you need to be prepared to take a major pickaxe to your writing drafts. And this should be an exciting thing – not a dreaded one. Major revisions allow your writing to be malleable. They give you opportunity after opportunity to take out any of that sludgy stuff and present your ideas in far more original and engaging ways. Even if some of the big changes you try out, like for example, inverting your introduction and conclusion, wind up being unfavorable, at least you can be confident in your final draft having attempted most other possibilities.
3. Practice active “sayback”
Something that can guide you through revisions is to seek out the help of others – those who know you and, often even better, those who don’t. Continuously, the best feedback that I get is a result of “sayback” – a process in which your partner reads through your essay and puts into their own words what they are taking away from it. If you urge them to get really specific, you’ll start seeing where logical gaps lie in your words, and where the words themselves don’t really correlate to what you want to say.
4. Find your resolutions through your process
There are going to be a lot of people (some probably more qualified on paper than I) who advise you to outline your essays. To jot down the qualities of yourself that you want to be certain to include before sitting down and writing. And there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that as an approach, but I’ve come to find it incredibly limiting at times. There is so much to be discovered, both for yourself and for your paper, by simply starting out with your story (whether it be winning CIF’s or experiencing your parents’ divorce). By telling it as honestly as you can, and reliving those emotions as they come – as opposed to of pulling them off of an outline – you can reach moments of self-reflection and self-realization that are truly authentic.