When writing an essay, I tell students that a lot of times they have to write through to their thesis. This definitely seems counterintuitive: how can you write and keep writing when you don’t fully know what you’re writing about or what point you’re trying to make? Doesn’t the thesis come first?
I remember that frustration as a student and I’m still likely to feel it when I write my own academic work today. I also remember getting to the end of a paper or a dissertation chapter and realizing, “Oh. This is actually what I’m interested in. This is the stuff I really meant to focus on all along.” I’d gotten to the end and figured out what I’d wanted to say from the beginning, but I never had said it—I’d been so busy doing all sorts of other stuff I thought I had to do first (such as analyzing what everyone else had to say about my topic) that I hadn’t really gotten around to my own good ideas until it was too late.
So I’d shove my best phrases and arguments into a few final paragraphs and turn in the assignment. It’s not like I had time to rewrite the paper I should’ve written the first time. That wasn’t a good feeling, but it did teach me what those professors had been trying to explain. I was able to recognize what my original message was once I cut through all the rules, second-guessing, perfectionism, and—most important of all—had spent time and words grappling with and articulating the problem (i.e., the prompt) as I wrote.
Like my own writing teachers and mentors, as a professor myself, I’ll often recognize what students are really trying to get at—their center of gravity—toward the end of their essay or response. Everything leading up to that point is essentially warm-up, prep work, a process of thinking through the task in order to arrive at the core of what they want to say. Once all the superficial layers of ideas are burned through, once the writing “rules” have been adhered to, when writers get down to their real business—this center of gravity is where a reader will hear the writer’s authentic voice.
I’ve commented on this phenomenon in so many words in so many ways over the years, just as my professors did for me: “This is where your essay really begins.” “This seems to be what you really want to say.” “Now you’re getting to it…” “Start with this paragraph and keep going from there.” “Take your conclusion, bring it up top, and see what happens.”
Almost without fail, the most interesting, complicated, and authentic bits of a first draft are typically going to fall near the end—when students have gone through the motions of what they’ve learned they’re “supposed” to do, when they’ve built up some confidence and can finally get to the heart of what they mean, and/or when their brains are too worn out by the above for further self-censoring criticism. Not coincidentally, at that point, the writer has usually spent enough time with the topic and paid enough attention to it to have something to say about it.
The key word here is time. This is why some of the best advice anyone can give a college-bound high school senior this month is to start writing the college essay now. Like, now. Just as it usually takes more than a first draft, it often takes many, many more words than the assigned count to get to what you’re truly trying to get to. Once all those extra words, thoughts, and ideas are out there—even if the draft is way over the word count—it’s easier to identify the message and whittle excess material away to uncover the true shape of the message.
True, this shape can be harder to see in one’s own writing (especially when it deals with a personal topic that a writer is close to), but an experienced teacher, advisor, parent, or friend might be able to help out. Many of the extra words won’t wind up being extra, either. Stylistic elements of the writer’s individual language choice and phrasings, the personality they reveal in expressing themselves, will get pulled into the final shape of the essay. The repetitive, empty, and filler words will get tossed. What’s left should sound like the writer and reveal the message they intended and realized through the process.
I’ll focus on the intrinsic value of this whittling exercise next time. In the meantime, seniors: reflect on your college essay prompts and get some messy, wordy drafts going. And even if you can’t figure out exactly what you’re trying to say yet—keep writing.
Related: 15 Mind-Blowing College Essay Tips