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03/10/2014 11:40 am ET | Updated May 10, 2014

Essential Reading for Writing the College Essay

I last taught high school in 2005. I've been tutoring and advising individual students extensively since then, and my biggest regret about my classroom teaching has become achingly clear: I didn't spend enough time helping students improve their writing.

The Trouble With School

Personal writing -- encompassing, generally, anything that derives directly the author's own thoughts, feelings and personal history -- hardly fits into the typical high school curriculum. It is intensely personal and unfathomably vague. Instruction in writing requires constant practice and feedback. A single paragraph can be a universe unto itself, warranting feedback many times its own length.

Many teachers would love to give due time and attention to the craft of writing, as did I. But then come novels and dramas and names and dates, and all of a sudden summer vacation arrives. Before long, graduation does too.

Collectively, application essays constitute a genre unto themselves. They offer freedom. They invite creativity. They demand introspection. They let students express what they think and feel about themselves and the world. Some college essays read like letters to a best friend; others are like corporate memos -- either approach can be okay. Though students may write academic essays expertly, most students face application essays with nothing but instinct as their guide.

Graduates and Applicants

This blog is directed primarily at two groups: Seniors who are eager to learn from the writing process that they have recently completed, and juniors who will soon be applying. With the November 1 early application deadline months away, high school juniors have plenty of time to develop their approach to writing. Seniors now understand how much they -- like every other living writer, from cub reporter to Pulitzer Prize winner -- can improve.

That 650-word essay that today's 11th graders will write next September must begin with reading. It must begin with books, articles and essays. They might be ten, one-hundred, or five-hundred times as long as that essay will be, and they can be on any and all topics that strike students' fancy. Of those, books on writing can play a small, but essential, role.

Reading About Writing

Writing is not like coding a computer program or sequencing the human genome. It does not require expertise or special knowledge. Writers need only a few age-old principles, healthy doses of self-criticism, and as much practice as they can manage. Fortunately, most of those principles are close at hand.

I've listed below five great books, one essential essay, and one compilation, that will hold all writers in good stead. Appropriately, these pieces are clear, original, powerful and often delightful -- just like the writing, they are meant to inspire. With that said, they will not instantly result in eloquence. Even the most earnest readers might absorb only a thimbleful of new ideas. But that's okay. They'll come away with oceans of inspiration.

"Politics and the English Language," George Orwell

Sloppy writers deceive even themselves.

Unscrupulous ones take advantage of everyone else.

Tyrants rise, justice withers, innocents die.

(An exaggeration? Then what of Mein Kampf?)

Orwell doesn't just tell us how to write well. He tells us why we must write well.
Read it first. Read it now.

The Elements of Style, William Strunk & E.B. White

A short, ubiquitous read, full of tips and genuine concern for students and the language. Beloved, but not uncontroversial.

On Writing Well, William Zinsser

Zinsser presents essential rules for good writing, with explanations to quiet skeptical minds.
No one else reveals the logic of style, organization, and the relationship between words as meaning as well as Zinsser does.

Write to Learn, William Zinsser

Zinsser, again. Thinking may not always be writing, but writing is always thinking.

He connects the two.

Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott: prolific author, celebrated stylist, award-winner. She shares every one of your anxieties about writing. She also knows the value of moral support. She offers it generously.

A Few Short Sentences on Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg

In Lives of the Cell, biologist Lewis Thomas argued that every cell -- the foundational element of all organisms -- contains within it an entire universe.

Klinkenborg argues much the same for sentences.

Sometimes, like an amoeba, a great sentence can exist on its own. (This was not one of them.)
Sometimes, merely adequate sentences join forces with each other to form monuments of intellect.

Klinkenborg's book is idiosyncratic, brilliant, largely devoid of structure, and full of subtle wisdom.

It is worth reading and re-reading.

One of his most memorable tips: edit by putting each sentence on a line of its own.
(Like this.)

The Best American Essays of the 20th Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates:

If you're going to read examples of great essays -- and you should -- why not go big? Start with these classics.

To the Bookstore

College applicants will write, and submit, their applications electronically. Do not resort to such conveniences here.

Get your books in hard copy. Ideally, try to buy them from an independent bookstore, the type of place run by people who care about writing. A library will do the trick too. (Here are a few reasons why.) Reading an entire, real book offers a vastly richer experience than does reading anything electronically (go ahead and add The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr, to your list).

When you read them, make notes and underline whatever you like. Fold down pages. Absorb whatever makes sense to you and don't worry about whatever does not. Then file them on a bookshelf where you can see them and be reminded of what you've read. Seek their counsel before you apply to college and celebrate when you send off essays of which you're proud. Read them when you get to college, and read them many times thereafter.

The lessons of high school, whether they address any of this or not, last only moments. Fortunately, Orwell, Zinsser, Lamott and all the rest demonstrate that high school doesn't necessarily matter. The process of learning to write never ends.

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