Monday, August 29, 2011

Avoiding Clichés in Your Personal Essay

At some point, you just have to accept that there will be clichés in your writing. That’s the bad news. If you wanted to snip every cliché out of your college essay, you would be left with just a handful of articles and pronouns.
But then, clichés aren’t all bad. They lend a certain playfulness to your writing; they reveal familiarity with literature and culture; and they condense complicated ideas into short, easily understandable packages.
As with almost everything, there is a balance. The real trick to effective writing is not in eliminating clichés altogether, but in using them wisely. Here are five tips to help you use clichés in a smarter, more potent way.

1. Truth is stranger than fiction. No one person’s life is exactly like any other, so the more honest you are with your reader and yourself, the less likely you are to repeat someone else’s story.
For instance, how will you answer the inevitable question, Why do you want to attend this school? If you begin by imagining what the college wants you to say, you are doing the same as every other applicant. But if you honestly consider all of the complexities implicated in the question, you may even surprise yourself with your answer.

2. Imagine different audiences. Again, take the question, Why do you want to attend this school? How would you answer if you were speaking to your parents? Your best friend? A psychiatrist? The president? What if your essay were really an op-ed for the newspaper? A proposition for a new advertising campaign? The first page of your novel? A political treatise nailed to the door of a church?
Of course, you don’t have to literally address any of these people. The point is not to adopt a strange format which will raise eyebrows. You are a different person depending on whom you speak to; the point is to find which version of you is best equipped to write this essay.

3. Don’t write down your first idea. Your brain, like everyone’s brain, is swimming with recent memories. The jingle you heard on the radio this morning, the line you read in a book last night—those are all on top. Your most creative, original ideas— those are waiting underneath.
Try writing three or four versions of your opening paragraph. Then, for every paragraph you complete, return to the ones that came before it to see how the trajectory of your essay has changed. The most original ideas and phrases will spring up at you only after you have exhausted the easy ones.

4. Show, Don’t Tell. You’ve probably heard this phrase before (in fact, it’s a cliché), but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Many clichés can be dissolved in details. The more (honest) details you provide, the more original your story will be.
For instance, take the phrase commonly found in college essays, “this will make my dream a reality.” How much more engaging would this passage be if the author wrote instead, “I will be able to walk up to my grandfather and read the pride on his face,” or “I will finally be able to take off this string which has been on my finger for four years,” or “someone will have to slap me before I believe I’m awake.”

5. Read other people’s college essays. This tip may be the most important of all. The only way to know what works and what doesn’t work in a college essay is to read essays which work and don’t work. There are a lot of books and websites which offer sample essays. You may also want to read non-college essays as well. For instance, as far as essays go, it is hard to top Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It is powerful and emotional and brilliantly written, but also puts together a very convincing argument in response to a set of questions.

Creativity is not something that can be acquired in five simple tips. Sometimes being creative means breaking all the rules. I will end with my favorite college essay story. A friend of a friend of mine received a college essay prompt which requested simply, Ask yourself a question and answer it.
His essay: “Do you play the tuba? No.”
He was accepted.

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