Ernest Hemingway, who shot at German soldiers and wild lions on the regular, was onto something with his short, aggressive sentences.
There's power in brevity.
Simple, declarative prose masks even the weakest ideas.
All ducks are angels in disguise.
(See? That's compelling nonsense right there.)
We kept Hemingway's bent for brevity in mind this week while reviewing this college application essay by Sparkler Jtoro89. Toro's ideas are strong, but sometimes communicated in a distracting, roundabout way that puts his essay about 100 words over the given limit. Toro asked specifically about places his prose could be clipped. Keep that in mind as he tells us about a real jerk of a tree from the days of his youth…
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Prompt: Please provide a statement (appr. 250-500 words) that addresses your reasons for transferring and the objectives you hope to achieve.
The notable American writer and poet Carl Sandburg once said, “The time for action is now. It is never too late to do something.” Although a simple message at face value, never had anything sounded so sweet to me, and so full of hope and optimism as when I first read these words, and I attribute my transition from an indolent high school kid to a steeled and disciplined man to them.
As a child, I knew nothing but intrepidity. My bravado went unmatched, and along with it, existed a gusto for adventure. I would arbitrarily find myself using a stick to take down my arch nemesis, or anything I could to conform to what I had read in books. I never considered it anything but sheer pleasure to go around seeking adventure, and my favorite form was tree hopping. I would fly from one tree to the next, perching myself on them like a buzzard on a rooftop. One tree in particular always stands out whenever I reminisce. The beauty it possessed in its long flowing tresses dotted with maple and green leaves added to its symbolism as something unattainable and ungraspable, for all the times I attempted to climb it, I never could. Once, excessively confident in my dexterity, I attempted to climb it, and before I knew, I heard the first crackle of a breaking branch. Snap! To my alarm there it was again, consecutively the second time. Snap! Snap! Before I had a chance to grasp my reality, I was plummeting nine feet to the ground. The impact with the hard-packed earth knocked every wisp of precious air from my lungs, and the pain was instantaneous. I recall struggling to get up, struggling to breath, and not remembering anything. “I have to get home”, I thought. However, once I was finally on my feet, I realized it might not be as simple as I thought. I was dizzy, and not the preferable slightly wobbly dizzy. No, It was the kind that sends the trees swooping around you and causes the earth to move in waves under your feet, but slowly, consciousness dawned on me, and hunched in defeat with my shoulders curled forward, I blundered home in stiff, small steps. Frozen by fear, I was apprehensive about placing myself in that position ever again.
Fast forward to present day, and whenever I recall the subsequent years after high school, college was much like that tree. It was the unattainable beauty, something I could not have, and was apprehensive to chase for fear of failing, and so I trudged forward with my life. The defining moment in my transition was my decision to leave for the military. I was still as green as the leaves on that tree, and too distressed about so many things concerning my future. The military showed me the inner strength that had been hiding, and the result was a true metamorphosis. I learned that I could not build a reputation on what I intended to do; that I needed to begin somewhere, and so I began at community college. Now, I am ready for the next step, to transfer to a university. Mr. Sandburg taught me it is never too late to do something, and so last year, even after all this time, I climbed that tree. Now, with one unattainable beauty conquered, I can move on to the next one that has eluded me for so long.
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So, what can we cut?
Well, Toro wont lose much by cutting the phrase about how the tree's leaves "added to its symbolism as something unattainable and ungraspable." A symbol isn't really a symbol if it's wearing a sign that says "symbol," and Toro already does a fine job communicating the tree's significance in his life by describing his interactions with it over time.
There are also plenty of sentences here that can be shortened and clarified by losing their compound, comma-heavy structure. Here's an example from the beginning of the second paragraph:
"As a child, I knew nothing but intrepidity."
A good paragraph opener, but sort of clunky. First of all, leading this sentence with a dependent clause gives it a passive tone, and that's not what we want from a phrase about bravery. Moreover, "intrepidity" is an awkward word to pronounce (even in my head), which I predict is the reason I've never heard anyone use it during conversation. "Conversational" is a good word to keep in mind while writing a personal essay. If Jtoro were to verbally tell this story to a friend or teacher, he'd likely opt for a shorter word like "boldness," "courage," or "stubbornness." Here's a stronger way to phrase the same thought:
"I was a bold and stubborn child."
See how much clearer and more natural that reads? This would make a good opening sentence. The idea is strong and simple, but even more importantly (and Toro was onto this with his original sentence, too) it raises a question and creates some tension. HOW was the narrator bold as a kid? WHY? WHAT has changed since then, and what sparked that change? Tell us, oh storyteller—ye have mine ear!
That brings me to my bombshell suggestion for improving the impact of this essay and lowering the word count in one mighty keystroke: Lose the Sandburg quote, and the entire first paragraph.
This essay, like every personal essay, tells a story: A boy fell from a tree and became nervous about attempting to reach his goals, joined the military, regained his self-confidence, went on to conquer that dingus tree and, soon after, his fears about college. (I'm sure you'll make it in, Toro!)
The Sandburg quote adds an extra level to the story, but it isn't really necessary. We've already got the tree climbing as a metaphor for attaining unattainable goals, and military training as a catalyst for taking action toward those goals.While the quote itself is pretty cool (and see—Sandburg's got those short, punchy sentences down, too!), for me it wasn't nearly as powerful as this personal revelation our narrator finds in the third paragraph:
"I could not build a reputation on what I intended to do."
BAM! Right there. That. That is the point of this essay. It is an incredibly mature, thoughtful, and elegant piece of philosophy—and it comes from the author, not an established writer. Because a personal essay is a story of personal change, this line should represent a far more valuable revelation in Toro's story than anything Carl Sandburg ever said.
Right now this essay's opening paragraph gives a frame to the rest of the essay, like a SparkNotes Outline version of the essay's narrative ("Boy becomes man by taking action"), but it doesn't add anything to the story itself. It's more a tool for the author to focus his argument than anything else, and that's fine. That's normal. Every time I try to write a story (and at least half the times I try to write a post for this website, including this review) I end up scrapping AT LEAST my first paragraph, because it was just a crutch for me to launch a proper narrative. It's one of those necessary warm-ups our brains need before the real creative juices can flow. And Toro's juices flow just fine in the second and third paragraphs of this essay. So. Cut the first one.
That alone will put Toro within 20 words of his limit. Those last 20 words will come naturally if Toro reads his essay aloud, making note of the places where he has to pause, stutter, or restart a sentence because his speech sounds unnatural. If Toro can read through this whole essay as if he's having a conversation with someone, he will know he's ready to turn it in.
What other advice do you have for brave Sparkler Jtoro89?
Do you think the quote actually adds to the essay and I'm full of crap?
Which sentences could be shortened or clarified?
Have you ever fallen out of a tree and thought you were Ernest Hemingway?