4 Quick Ways to Polish Student Writing

Posted: April 28, 2015

By senior year, you've had at least 13 years of writing instruction and at least 13 different ideas of what good writing is. You know you should "show, don't tell" and "use 5 paragraph essay structure" and maybe even "kill your darlings," if your writing teacher was particularly savvy. But those tips will only get you through revision. Then what? Use these four tips to make all your writing sing.

1) Abolish adjectives and adverbs. No, really, if every noun needs an adjective and every verb needs an adverb to paint your picture, your nouns and verbs are not strong enough. Sure, the character in your story could live in a "cozy little house." Or she could live in a "cottage," which is a house with the "cozy" and "little" built right in. The difference is denotation vs connotation. A word's denotation is its dictionary definition--a house is a structure people live in. The connotation is what the word makes you think of--cottage, hovel, mansion, hut, lean-to, cabin, foxhole--all of these words connote different things, but they are all "structures people live in." Similarly, "'That's awful,' she said mournfully" is weaker than "'That's awful,' she moaned." Strong verbs put us in the story, instead of you as narrator telling us what is happening.

2) Control your thesaurus. Use those SAT words, but use them correctly, sparingly and for effect. It's fine to talk about the "vagaries of the tax code" but don't get carried away. To me, my education, activities, and community service are more than trite and monotonous undertakings of everyday life. I view these as intellectual and philanthropic cultivators of colloquial individuals in order to create the beautifully unique"* is all kinds of nope.

3) Use active voice. You've probably heard this one in English class. And for good reason: beginning writers seem to think that "The ball was thrown by John" sounds more educated than "John threw the ball." It isn't. Keep your subjects at the beginning of your sentences unless you have a very good reason not to. [A good reason would be a. you don't know the subject of the action ("two proposals were put forth at the meeting") or b. you're varying your sentence structure to emphasize the subject.]

One day, I want to become an Obstetrician. To attain it, I have been volunteering weekly in the Mother/Baby Ward of the Memorial Hospital of Miramar. Working hard, I will achieve my goal. Surprisingly enough, for these past nineteen months, through times of rigorous activity, I have stayed committed.*

4) Vary your sentence structure. Beginning writers tend to get in a rut, sentence-construction-wise. Using all passive voice is one of these ruts. Others include starting every sentence with an introductory phrase, like in the pull quote above. Some writers like very long, convoluted sentences with a lot of ideas and prepositional phrases all strung together because that is how these writers think. (Me, for instance). The late Gary Provost gives the best explanation I've read for why we need to vary our sentence structure.

And that's it. Paying attention to those four things--strong nouns and verbs, dazzling language, active voice, and sentence structure--will make your admissions essay, scholarship essay, ACT Writing section essay, or any other writing you do, sparkle.

*examples come from actual scholarship essays written by high school seniors.

TALK BACK! Have you tried these techniques? Do you agree that they work?

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