That Essay: Writing it Without Actually Writing
My love/hate relationship with writing comes down to this:
I love the precision of words, the logic behind the rules of grammar, and the nuanced expression that’s possible when we break those rules. I can get worked up defending the Oxford comma and have argued, with passion, that the convention against splitting infinitives is silly and counterproductive. I’m a word nerd.
I hate how the certainty of language seems wholly incongruent with the messiness of the world it describes (maybe I’m just referring to my world). Since I first started to care about it in eleventh grade, my writing process has always begun with abject terror. Every. Single. Time.
But that’s my writing. I love everything about your writing. Reading application essays is one of my favorite parts of my job. I love how your essays elevate an ordinary topic to something sublime with nothing more than a thoughtful perspective and inventive prose. Or how other essays deconstruct topics that had flown over my head and make them accessible to me. Or how your writing can introduce me to new ways of thinking, communicating, and living.
I’ve never read an essay and thought “This is terrible.” There have been unfortunate typos, for sure. (Take note: D is adjacent to F on the keyboard, and when your fingers confuse the two while typing the College’s name, the result is unfortunate.) But my near universal appreciation for your writing stems from a respect for what it takes to write something you can be proud of.
It takes a lot—and since writing an application essay isn’t like writing a paper or other homework assignments, the process that produces one might be different, and new to you.
Maybe your essay-writing process resembles the way I’ve approached this post. In your case, you’ve noted the appearance of Dartmouth’s supplemental essay questions on our site or have skimmed the Common App’s prompts. Maybe, while application deadlines hide comfortingly far off in these languid days of warmth, you’ve decided to sit in front of your computer for a bit and consider what you might write. You know, while the pressure’s off.
(If you’re exactly like me, after sitting down, you immediately browsed your Insta, looked for something to eat, thumbed idly through your news, considered a haircut, and searched again for something tasty—still nothing—before holding your head in your hands then resolving to buckle down and send this thing. Lesssgo!)
And then… nothing.
Here’s the thing about me that’s meant to help you find the thing about you that might unlock your writing efforts: I can’t write well when I’m trying hard. In fact, the harder I try, the worse I write. When I feel like I need to write something ah-maze-ing, on demand, the resulting logjam of words scores high on Scrabble but low on coherence or comprehensibility.
If that sounds familiar, stop trying so hard. Stop trying at all. Step back and find something that lets your inspiration emerge. Think about what you were doing the last time a captivating idea popped into your head. Maybe you were painting, or running through the woods, or taking a shower. You probably weren’t in front of your computer. Dartmouth’s neuro profs could tell us why our best thinking often happens when we’re distracting ourselves from thinking hard, but knowing why this happens isn’t as important as embracing the fact that it does.
All of this is a long way of saying that the best way to start writing something you can be proud of might not involve writing at all. It might be as simple as taking another look at those prompts and then ditching the laptop to go do something you love until an idea emerges. When it does, follow it, and then share the journey with us.