Monday, April 29, 2013

In Which I Write An Essay (Or Not)

So I'm trying to get my stuff together to actually apply for grad school. My goal is to work on it all this week.

Most of the stuff isn't hard. Letters of rec I've got lined up, transcripts I can have sent over from the U of MN. 20 page writing sample... that's one's a bit tricky. Not because it's hard or anything, but just because I'll have to look through some options and decide what's the best to showcase with. The beginning of something? An exciting chunk in the middle? But I'll get there. I just need to devote some time to it.

No. The writing sample I'm not really worried about. What I AM worried about, though, is the 3-4 page critical essay.

Pshaa. Like I'm going to handwrite it with crayons. THAT will make a good impression I'm sure

This is what they say about it: 

...focusing on an element of craft or a particular subject in a children's or young adult book that has impressed you. For example, focus on the ways in which the writer created tension on the page to move the reader forward through the book. Or, focus on the ways in which the author developed the characters in the picture book you read. Or, based on a particular book, discuss what elements make a successful sports novel for girls. Please use specific examples from the text as evidence to support your opinion(s)

I mean, on paper, that seems easy. And actually the idea of it's not what I'm worried about. 3-4 pages is nothing and I'm sure I can blab on about pace in the Hunger Games or something.

What I'm worried about is writing the actual essay. I used to be really good at writing these kinds of things. But I haven't had to do anything like this in about 10 years. I can't really remember how to do it. Like, I can't even remember how to start one, let alone format it and junk. It's kind of stressing me out. More than it should, probably.

I used to save all my papers and junk from college and even a few from high school. But I've upgraded two computers since then so I'm not sure I can find any of them. I still have one of my old laptops and I plan on plugging that in this week and seeing what I can find. I'm just not sure that I transferred any of my school work from my desktop at the time to my laptop.

If there's nothing there, I guess I'm going to have to trust to the interwebs to steer me in the right direction.

Apparently essay writing IS a skill that you lose if you don't use. I never would have guessed that.

What's up with you? Written any papers or essays recently? Have a good weekend?


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

You can always Google some examples to refresh your memory.

Matthew MacNish said...

Make sure to reach out to your blog friends. I think Michelle McLean wrote some non-fiction books about stuff like this. Do you know her?

Les Edgerton said...

Sarah, I often write recommendations for students and clients and friends of mine applying to MFA programs and I give them a bit of advice they haven't heard before. In the writing sample (of which I've read dozens and dozens and see the same thing done all the time), I see writers trying to use every square inch of the space allowed. Many will even "cheat" and fudge their margins or line spacing or font size in an attempt to squeeze in even more. But, that's simply a big red flag to those who read these for admission. All of those tricks are instantly visible to the reader and tell us one thing--that this applicant is lacking in confidence in his or her work. They seem to think that the more they provide, the more their ability will shine through. Alas, the opposite will happen. They'll simply look unsure of the quality of their work. The folks who read these are reading tons of other samples also and it's a daunting task. What gets an applicant to the top of the pile and considered very favorably is the person who submits just a bit less than the maximum required. This exudes confidence for one thing. It also elicits a sigh of relief that the reader won't have to read as much. The truth is, any good judge of writing can tell within a paragraph or two if the applicant has talent or not.

If the prose sample asks for say, "15-20 pages" I'd urge the applicant to submit 18 or 19 pages. It will stand out and very positively, as the vast majority of the other applicants will submit the entire 20 pages and use all the little tricks mentioned above. And, if it's a good school, there will be tons of applicants, most of whom will be rejected. One of the reasons (that no one will tell you) is that the person who submits a bit less than the maximum will be viewed much more positively by the reader than the one who crammed every possible space with prose.

Also, a person who fudges with font size, spacing, etc. has violated professional format and that's another big red flag.

Hope that helps! And, good luck!

Summer Frey said...

I am still well-versed in essay writing. Gimme a holla if you need me.

Rena said...

Yeah, I know what you mean when it comes to essays. I'm just glad I'm over that phase of my life where I'd have to write them. I wasn't good at them and had little patience for them. Good luck!

Anne Gallagher said...

Essays are just basically your opinion on the junk you need to write about. That's all. For example --Henry David Thoreau wrote essays on the environment and civil disobedience.

You need a declarative statement and then you need to support them.

I like pacing in the plot.
In Suzanne Collins Hunger Games she shows us pacing by ...blah blah blah.

Don't sweat this, you can do it. Need some help, just email me.

Hart Johnson said...

Oh, I KNOW you can do it! Seriously--this kind of thing is a lot like blogging yeah? I'd just free write on your topic, then look at it overall, organize it in an outline and REwrite it in a more cohesive way... *nods*

Good luck with the grad school program!

Catherine Stine said...

In the lit class I teach, my students have to write critical essays. I always tell them to pretend that they are trying to convey to a good friend some idea that they are passionate about. In other words, imagine you are speaking to a friend and that may make your task less intimidating. Good luck with it.

Michael Offutt, "Johnny on the Spot" said...

When it comes to essays, this is how I do it (and I was pretty damn good in my day).

S.E.S.S. <== rule (State Explain Support Summarize).

In the support, grab onto a quote from some notable like Aristotle or someone of equal proportions. Then take that quote and totally use it to support whatever thesis you are talking about.

And then summarize babe.

Maria Zannini said...

Essays can be dull and dry so write about something you feel passionate about first and then get it to fit the format instructions.

You'll do fine.

Leah (aka Mary_not_Martha) said...

Sounds like you just need some formats to remind you. In my writ 101 we practiced persuasive, expository, compare and contrast and descriptive essays. Open with a quote, statistic, or anecdote. End with a tie in to the opener with a recommendation or my favorite - a question for the reader to ponder after you just supported (and/or contrasted) the facts. You are creative so adding your magic to the format will be amazing.

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