It’s Perfect, now Help!
Last week, a former Essay Intensive student, T, needed help last minute help with her transfer essays, which she thought were close to perfect. It was the usual problem: I’ve written it, now how do I cut it down to size?
T was– and still is– Perfectionism’s Poster Girl. She will fight you, and did me, on every turn of phrase in her essay, every single preposition– why it should stay, why the wording is already perfect. AND YET SHE NEEDS AND WANTS MY HELP. She’s classy and has poise, but her affect is whisper-yelling, I LOVE IT LIKE THIS GET YOUR HANDS OFF MY SENTENCE.
People who don’t want to revise are in trouble as writers. T is incredibly articulate, intelligent, and accomplished– but aiming to make your writing perfect isn’t usually the way to make it perfect.
In Love with the Darlings?
Is she “in love with her darlings”? Yup. She’s thought so hard about every semantic and syntactic choice in the essay that eliminating something feels like a liability.
Familiarity can actually lessen our critical eye. Her essays sound “just right” to her– and yours to you?– EXACTLY as they are. And so it’s nearly impossible to objectively evaluate what to cut. What’s considered perfect is too precious to improve.
Remember your audience, however. My advice to students who cling to their work is, “Save this version for your memoirs, I can’t wait to read them!”
Do your job
Because we have to give readers what they want. In these essays the admissions team is not, actually, evaluating whether you’ve turned a phrase perfectly. They want to know that you can answer the question, and that you see your story– expectation, disappointment, reassessment, plot turn– clearly.
And you, like everyone else who lives and breathes and hopes to apply to school, has to come in under word count– 650. It’s the great equalizer and no admissions team- or text box, for that matter– will make an exception for you for even the most brilliant exposition. They are not looking for gorgeous. They are looking for, “Did you do what we asked?” And that’s what makes your essay perfect.
Try this revision to get over “perfect”
If you, like T, are getting stuck in a creativity-constipating “perfect”, try this. Make a copy of your essay, so that you can wean yourself off the draft you already love that is 300 words over, which you can’t fathom can lose even a prepositional phrase. Then, remove as much as you can, especially details extraneous to the essay’s core purpose, and start in a relaxed way from the heart of the essay.
You may have to hoot, yell, howl, cry at the loss of your darlings. But what you make in the end will be so much better.
Need help letting go? Reach out to us and tell us your sob story. We have a toddler: we have no problem listening to your resistance (we listen to resistance all day long, for realz!), but then being compassionately blunt with you.
And that’s Perfect. Loosening up, paradoxically, is what will make your essay as tight as it needs to be.
Letting Go: A Coda
PS Does this sound like old news to you? Then why do we keep needing to hear it?
PPS. My student, T ultimately let go in her essays because she had to and deep in her perfectionist heart she actually wanted to. Now her essays are not going to make or break her life choices– SHE will do that. She’s concerned about empowering communities, and figuring out how to effectively use Venture Capital to support women and minority owned business– the quest for economic justice. Among other things. First, she’s seeking to understand the history of these communities and their relationship with– or exclusion from– capitalism. You’ll hear about her, I’m sure. I’m just warming you up.