At this point, you’ve read your own essay so many times that you aren’t really reading it anymore – you’re just skimming the shapes of words and remembering what they represent. "How will I know when it's finished?" many students ask. "How can I possibly "polish" something I've stared at for so many hours?" Follow this guide for a smooth, stress-free polishing process.
Read it out loud.
Yes, it's that simple. Reading the essay out loud shakes you out of your authorial daze. Why? When you read aloud, you can only deal with one syllable at a time. Skimming isn’t possible. For maximum effectiveness, read slowly, clearly, and loudly, as if you’re speaking in front of an audience.
The point of this process is to shine a spotlight on the cumbersome, unnatural points in your prose. As you read, pay attention to which sentences sound bulky or awkward. Need clues? Take note if you get lost, or lose your breath, or sound monotone, or can’t figure out where to place verbal emphasis in a sentence. These are all signs that something needs fixing.
After you read the essay aloud a few times, you'll know your essay's trouble spots. Now, it's time to polish. Here are two of the most common issues we encounter – and how to fix them.
If your sentences sound overly wordy:
Close the thesaurus and simplify. Eliminate any words that you wouldn’t naturally use and/or that you can’t define on the fly. Why? If you aren't deeply familiar with the connotations of the words you're using, you may be misusing them.
And be sure to nix any “SAT adjectives” you tacked onto the essay as an afterthought. “The painting captivated me” sounds a whole lot better (and more coherent) than “The arresting and stupefying painting captivated me.” Remember: you really don’t need to impress admissions officers with your vocabulary. It’s much more impressive to write a well-structured essay with a clear point and a conversational tone.
If your sentences are just too long:
Punctuation gives your readers room to breathe. If you pack too much information into a sentence, your reader may end up missing the most important points. One common example of this issue: lists of related, but totally different, things. Take a look at this excerpt:
“As team captain, I faced countless challenges. It was difficult to boost my team’s morale after a losing season, coordinate travel to the championship game the next year, and convince the principal to raise money to renovate the baseball field."
The writer lists three significant and completely different scenarios, each of which took place at a different period in time. Why squash them all into a single sentence? Give your reader time to consider, visualize, and reflect on each item by giving each one its own sentence:
“As team captain, I faced countless challenges. It was difficult to boost my team’s morale after a losing season. Later, I had to convince the principal to prioritize fundraising for baseball field renovations. When we finally made the championships, I spent weeks meeting with school administrators to coordinate the team’s travel schedule.”
Ahhh. This version is much easier to process thanks to the time markers (“later”, “finally”, “weeks”) and the natural, punctuation-induced pauses.
Not every long sentence has to be split up into 3+ separate sentences. However, if the length and complexity of a sentence is muddling your main point, it's time to start doing some long division. (Ba-dum chhh.)
Polishing your own essay is difficult. As the author, you know exactly what you meant to say, so it's easy to overlook what your essay is actually saying.
That's why reading aloud is such a useful writing life hack. When you read the essay aloud, you're forced to reckon with confusingly structured sentences and awkwardly phrased descriptions. And once you've discovered those trouble spots, you'll be able to polish them in no time.
You've already done the hard, powerful work of putting your aspirations, values, and stories on paper. Those ideas deserve to be understood, so take a deep breath and start editing.
Looking for more in-depth essay advice?
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Do you have a genius strategy for editing essays without totally losing your mind? Email us – we'd love to hear it.