By Yelena Shuster
As someone who edits college admissions essays, I know the hardest part about writing can be getting out of your own damn head. We can be our harshest critics, so here’s how to trick the old coot into shutting up. Because the only thing standing in your way of being a better writer is yourself.
“Write Now. Revise Later.”
Here’s a secret: even award-winning writers hate their first drafts. Just accept that your original take will need finessing. Bestselling author Anne Lamott calls these her “shitty first drafts.” And so can you, by using the highly-quotable “Write now. Revise later” approach, coined by former Ivy League admissions officer Harry Bauld. Whenever you’re sitting at the screen panicked like a Cathy cartoon, just remind yourself that you will revise it into a masterpiece later. For now, just get it all out, hide it in a locked treasure chest in your secret nuclear bunker (these are required for 2017, no?), wait a week, then revisit it with a fresh mind and perspective. Voila!
But how, you say? How can I actually sit down and write the damn thing in the first place? Here’s a trick: time yourself. Remember in high school when you’d have timed essay tests? Get thee to a wifi-free space, lock your phone, and set your timer. If you know you only have a half hour to bang out 400 words (and there’s no pressure since at this point you’ve internalized the shitty first draft rule), you will do it.
Find a New Medium
To me, there’s something menacing about Microsoft Word. I associate it with homework and pressure and if I try to write on it, I will freeze. Instead, I use the Notes app on my iPhone. It immediately takes the pressure off because the medium is so casual and puts me in a laidback mood since I’m basically texting my magnum opus to myself. So my inner critic is like, Cool, we’re just texting, going to sit this one out. Like magic!
(Reader, I confess I’m writing this to you on my Notes app. It’s my little secret. I started doing it on long subway rides during my super efficient phase and it’s kind of changed my life. The other advantage to this? You can write literally anywhere at any time. I’ve edited 1,000-word profiles on the subway at all hours.)
Diana Vilibert, a friend and fellow Edster whose writing I’ve been obsessed with for years, recently confessed to me that she writes all of her first drafts—from 100-word marketing copy to 2,000-word pieces—on her Mac’s TextEdit app. Yes, that horrible little white box that looks like a Windows reject from the ’70s. “It tricks my anxious brain into thinking that all I’m doing is writing to fill up that tiny space,” she says. “All I need to worry about is getting this one paragraph right, and then I’ll move on to the next one. It’s less intimidating than starting with a huge, screen-sized blank page and a blinking cursor.”
Write To Your Ideal Reader
If changing up where you write doesn’t work, try a Tumblr post or some other blogging medium whose confessional nature makes it easier to access your natural voice. Or maybe for you, the solution is writing an email draft to your best friend who’s your ideal reader—the one who laughs at all your jokes and thinks every word out of your mouth is brilliant.
Your first major assignment may fill you with dread if you’re picturing a cruel, evil editor waiting to tear it to shreds. (You’re a writer after all; this imagination’s useful for something). If you’re feeling overwhelmed, pretend you’re writing for this one person who you admire—and (this is critical) who admires you right back. Picture him or her loving this line or that turn of phrase and, soon, you will get your groove back!
Yelena Shuster is a former Ed2010 editor and current Admissions Guru. After winning the $100,000 Campbell Soup Essay Contest when she was 17—yeah…she peaked early—she now gives high school seniors the competitive college essay edge.