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The 10-Draft Essay Writing Strategy


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This strategy mostly applies to writing an undergraduate application essay. But a lot of its elements can be transferred to writing a graduate Purpose of Statement.

Bottom line: You will need to go through many drafts, revisions, rewrites before you have a solid, strong essay.


According to Robin Mamlet and Christine Vandervelde (College Admission, Three Rivers Press, New York) you can follow a 10-step  day-2 week strategy toward a great essay. Let’s assume you have selected a topic or you already have a topic you need to answer. It can be about Laskar Palangi or your brother or an incident on the bus, or celebrating elections day or your favorite cartoon… remember it can be anything……but it has to reveal you. This is what they recommend:


Draft 1


You have your idea so you start writing. Just do it. Don’t worry how it sounds or if anyone will read it. Resist the temptation to judge yourself or reread it thinking this is your final essay. Just keep writing. Recognize that if you start checking twitter or email or you want snack, it’s your worried self finding excuses and distractions. Don’t look for the right word just tell what happened. Focus on the story, on what happened, what was important, why and how.

(They recommend you read Anne Lamott “the sh*#@ty first draft”)


Draft 2


The next day, you read your draft – it won’t be easy or pretty – and think again if this is the right topic. Is this your story and is it an interesting story? If the answer is yes, then look if the story is about you, whether you are the main point. Does it come straight from the heart and is it your true voice? This is where you need to forget about “big picture cliches about hard work and passion and inspiration and leadership.” (book, College Admission). Everything has to be through the prism of how and who and why affected you, shaped you and how you see that. What did you feel? How did it change you? What was it like before? What was the biggest problem? Try to rewrite your draft based on that.


Draft 3


After 2 more days, you go back to the draft and see if it tells a story. Good essays tell good stories. Does your essay have a beginning, middle and end? Does it flow? Do you have specifics? Are there good transitions between paragraph? Does it make sense? How do you get from point A to point B. Does the conclusion return to the introduction. Your story doesn’t have to be chronological, it can go back and forth, but it has to be clear and it has to move.

Mamet and Vandevelde suggest you print this one and leave it for a week or so.


Draft 4


You pull out your essay, you reread it, and “see if there are any holes in your story.” Afterwards you look at the “voice” of your essay. What is the tone, the style, the attitude. This is very important because this says who you are as much as the content of the story. Are you serious, humorous, formal, sensitive….anything as long as it’s you. One way to tell if it’s your voice is to read it out loud. Does it sound like you are talking?


Draft 5


In this draft you will do two very important tasks – add details and describe/show the story.


  • Add detail to your story: this will make it come alive. Don’t say the kampung I visited was far, say  the name of the kampung and where it was and what it was close to. How did you get there and who was with you? Go through your essay and make sure you have taken every opportunity to add examples and details. If you it is difficult to come up with a work, take a “key word from your essay and free-associate, writing down everything that comes to mind. The details you’re looking for will emerge.
  • Show it don’t tell it: If you are writing about a visit or an incident or the way a person or a book has affected you, avoid being direct in saying that “that visit shows how I have become compassionate”. Show it through your story. Say what you did during that visit, what you brought, what you said, what it cost you to get there in terms of time and effort.


Draft 6


Read your Draft 5 and make sure you are moving in the right direction.


  • Are you answering the question?
  • Are you giving the information you wanted?
  • Are you passionate and enthusiastic?
  • Is it your voice?
  • What does the reader learn about your?
  • Are you clear?


Begin checking for word count. Most essays will be over the required limit. Now comes the hard part – getting rid of sentences you absolutely loved, especially since they took you such a long time to craft. But if they don’t add to the story, if you can do without them – you get rid of them. Cut and rewrite.


Draft 7


It’s time to show your essay to a teacher, a parent or a friend. You need a different perspective.  See what they think about your opening/start, about you and the impression you make, what parts they like best. You can accept advice about grammar, about something sounding repetitive, or not clear. It’ not a good idea if someone says wants you to say things in a “better” way, or offers to substitute words or cut parts.


Draft 8


It’s time for a final polish on content. Author and writing teacher Ellen Sussman recommends this four-part exercise:


  1. Go through the essay word by word to see if there is better way to say what you want to say. A better word is not a fancier word. (note: it’s OK to use a word in Bahasa Indonesia in your essay, as you also find a way to explain what it means. Your essays should be authentic and informative so if you have to say salam aleikum, nasi goreng or blusukan, go ahead and do it. but provide an English explanation)
  2. Look for any opportunity to make the writing richer, or where are good metaphor or simile can underline a them. An oboist (a musician) described her first effort as “the sound of dying geese.”
  3. Look one more time for places you can add details and specifics. A Metallica poster with Trujillo hung on the wall is better than a poster hung on the wall.
  4. Look to see if you have used more than one of the five sense. Don’t be just visual. Remember to include smells and tastes and sounds and textures.


Draft 9


Read your last draft and look at the grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Make sure you comply with length. Proofread for typos.


Draft 10


Almost done. It’s time for a final proofreading. It’s time to let at least one other person to proofread your essay before you submit it. You will be amazed how other people spot typos right away even though you’ve read the text hundred times.


Save, print a copy for your records and congratulations.

January 22, 2015

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