Craft the perfect essay, no matter the occasion
You may not think your tromps in the creek are worth writing about, but every story of your life is valuable to pass on. Your stories are like treasures from a creek—the keepable part of life’s trials.
“When I first started thinking about recording my life for posterity, I asked myself how much I wanted my great-grandchildren to know about my life, my mistakes, my weaknesses. Eventually I realized that I don’t want them to think I was perfect; I just want them to know that I learned,” says Jared Odd, Writing Center coordinator at Lindsey Wilson College in Adair County.
You may hesitate to tell your stories because you think you can’t write. “Know that no one is born with a natural ability to write well, but you can learn,” encourages Odd. Whether you are a high school student applying for scholarships, a college student who’d rather sleep than finish a paper, or a grandmother imparting wisdom, all you need to craft a great essay is the right memory connected to a message that is important to you.
Make memories come alive
Don’t let the word essay intimidate you. An essay is simply a written reflection of who you are and what you believe. Dr. Jill Parrott, first-year writing coordinator and assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, says standout essays are those that don’t just “hit the points like a checklist, but rather show the student’s voice in the work.” To reveal your voice in writing, reveal something about yourself—an emotion or experience with which readers can connect.
Before you start writing, home in on one topic. When you’ve chosen the topic, widen the way you look at it. Brainstorm as many words as you can about the topic. Chantella Corder, Washington Youth Tour participant and scholarship winner from South Kentucky RECC, says the first thing she does when writing an essay is to think about how the topic or prompt makes her feel. “I ask myself, ‘What stand do I take on this?’ and ‘What do I want to say?’ Then I write down as many words as I can that illustrate the feelings and facts I want to convey,” Corder says.
Don’t stop with one short list of words. Think of unpredictable descriptions, too. For example, if an essay is about influential people in your life, first thoughts may be about character, such as sacrificial or hardworking, but also write words that remind you of unique aspects, like oatmeal with brown sugar or plaid flannel shirts, or even unflattering descriptions, like oil-stained nails. If an essay is about conservation, writers may default to saving energy or protecting nature, but unexpected trains of thought could be contentment, making-do, or secondhand shopping.
Former Disney Imagineer McNair Wilson teaches in his book Hatch! that a key to creativity is to not stop yourself from forming an idea. Get all the possibilities down. Don’t tell yourself that something won’t work. In his book Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques, creative-thinking expert Michael Michalko suggests that the best way to expand your response to a topic is to look at it from new perspectives: can you SCAMPER (substitute, combine, adapt, modify or magnify, put to other uses, eliminate, or rearrange) the words or concepts? For example, if the essay topic is about a family recipe, don’t automatically write about your favorite dish. Does your least favorite food make a funnier story—how you raced to shell peas faster than your grandfather, even though you hated eating them?
“Readers of essays want a new way of looking at problems and solutions. If you can hook a reader with a poignant tale or memorable image, then you can teach or conclude what you need to in the rest of the work. Make your essay stand out, even if that means breaking traditional norms,” says Andrew Cleary, Washington Youth Tour participant from Shelby Energy and 2015-2016 winner of the University of Louisville esteemed Henry Vogt scholarship. To make memories come alive, come at your topic from a different angle than the assumed approach.
Telling your story well
It is not enough to start your essay with a moving or funny scene. Your memory should illustrate what you want to say, like a photo that accompanies a news article. A clear thesis (main point), excellent content (specific examples and thought-out arguments), and spotless grammar are essential to a strong piece. Ultimately, every sentence must have a purpose and push your points forward. Have others read your essay to look for these building blocks, but it is personal connection that makes the difference between a boring essay and a brilliant one.
“When students don’t just replay facts but tell why they care about something, when they take time to think about their interest and investment in the topic—that grabs a committee’s attention,” says Christian Cruce, director of scholarships at Murray State University and West Kentucky RECC member. “Whenever you can in an essay, personalize.”
Opinions and mistakes, tribulations and triumphs, like leeches, come and go. Why share yours? Because the people in your life—whether they are your descendants or college administrators just getting to know you—need to know that one day, a long time ago, you stepped into a creek and on that day you learned to listen to your mother.Web Exclusive: Glimpses of you
No one has to tell us that the days fly by faster the older we get. One way to make your time today count for tomorrow is to capture a bit of yesterday. Tell the story of your life by recording your memories on paper, video, or audio. There are many kinds of recording options.
One of the least intimidating ways to document your childhood stories is to make an audio recording. Ask for assistance at an electronics store to find a device that has a recording option. If you record on cassette tapes, have the tapes converted to CDs, and make more than one copy of each tape. Many stores and local businesses offer audiotape and videotape conversion services. Check the Better Business Bureau for recommendations.
If you have a tech-savvy child or grandchild, ask him or her to help you set up a recording session with a microphone and computer. Have your family burn several copies of your recordings onto CDs.
When my children were preschoolers, we asked grandparents, aunts, and uncles to record several childhood stories on audiotape. We made the recording when we were together for Christmas. Every night for a couple of years, our children listened to the recording with joy as they fell asleep. We were miles apart from family, but the recording kept us close at heart. We heard stories on that tape that family members had never shared before.
Your family may regularly make videos of holidays, birthdays, and other special events. In addition to capturing these memories, consider making a video recording of yourself telling stories from your childhood. Perhaps you could ask one of your children to record you while you are telling stories to your grandchildren, or set up a more staged background and record stories to give as a gift.
Tell stories about your chores, pets, favorite foods, memories of Christmastime, and important people in your life. Tell about funny mistakes you made. Describe how you felt when each grandchild was born and things you hope each of them will learn, choose, and experience as they grow.
If you don’t have access to a recording device or if you find writing is easier for you, record your stories in print. Use a computer or typewriter to neatly detail your childhood memories. If you’d like to have your stories printed as a book, find a reputable company. Many photo book services are available online. You can add photos to your stories and have your book printed with a custom cover.
Kristen White from August 2015 Issue
Illustration: Sean Delonas