College Essay Workshop: The Editor-Writer Relationship

Here’s a quick example of what goes on between an editor and a writer. This young man, Daniel Buckner, is from a small town in Indiana. This essay was part of his Early Decision application to Yale. Dan was deferred, although his Yale admissions office contact told him that he was a “strong deferral.”

In the example below, Dan sends me his revised essay draft and he poses some questions (in bold), which I am answering (in brackets) by e-mail. This is a typical exchange between an essay writer and a writing coach/editor.


My comments are inside brackets preceded by “***”. Regarding your essay:

Break From the Herd

She looks at me through the glass. She is as curious about me as I am of her. She cocks her head and looks into my eyes. Her eyes ask me, “What is your life like? How do you view the world?” [passions aren’t explicitly included in the essay so I changed the phrase] My eyes reply, “I think you know.” [is this last line good? or could it be changed into something more glib?]

***[I like the ambiguity of “I think you know.” It establishes a kind of abstract communion between you and the deer, which you develop further on in the essay. That ambiguity also creates interest and positive tension for the reader who, even at this early stage in the essay, should be drawn into the content. I don’t think you should change it.]

I love to sit at the kitchen window and watch the feeding deer come right up to the house at dusk. There is something about watching them in their natural environment that is magical, peaceful, and equalizing. For the most part, they are unaware that I am spying on them, but sometimes a doe breaks off from the herd and ventures near the kitchen window where I sit. We make eye contact, and we connect.

As our eyes meet, I am flooded with a view into the deer’s life that I try to hold onto as long as possible. Her big brown eyes (like mine) bespeak happiness, sadness, hope, despair-everything. At once, I see her as a fawn pawing a lazy toad in a wildflower field. I see her first hard winter when she has to pick through thick ice to reach the bark of a sapling oak for food. I see her finding an apple-tree treasure chest on a panting-hot Summer day.

I am forced to think of my own life. I think of the bad times: the lousy baseball games I’ve played, my parents’ divorce, the prejudicial stares in the grocery store [this example may leave a bad impression, but it is a part of my life]. But I also think of the good times: getting my driving license, finally figuring out the many tricky parts in Jimi Hendrix’s songs on guitar, 18 years with my mom.

***[The “prejudicial stares” comment is fine. They’ll understand this.]

Although the deer’s perception comes through instinct, her eyes tell of an implicit curiosity about the world she lives in. A glance into her brown whirlpools tells me that, as a fawn, she loved to wander away from her mother, pouncing after springtime moths and examining beaver-felled trees, always wondering why things are the way they are. Why is the elk’s hoof print so large? Why does the blue jay always sing that annoying song? As the sight of another person’s yawning will arouse one to yawn himself [ugly simile. I feel I need a transition that is like a transmutation of her questions into mine], her questions arouse my questions: What does Ivan represent in The Brothers Karamazov? Why do positrons have no mass? Why do I always put my tee shirt on backwards before breakfast?

***[How about something like: “Why does the blue jay always sing that annoying song? Her quizzical innocence gently spurs my own reflections: What does Ivan represent . . .”]

There are so many questions that never seem to stop, but I have a thirst to answer them. My imagination constructs homemade hypothesizes that attempt to explain why the keystone holds an arch together in the county courthouse or why my fingernails grow slowly in the summer. In my imagination, I travel far beyond rural Indiana, examining arches in Roman aqueducts and conducting nationwide surveys on fingernail growth. Oak leaves and Monet prints in the bathroom take me to the edge of the universe . . . [reader may not be able to infer that the leaves and paintings cause questions. I would like to keep it because I think it is a good transition into the ending.]

***[For your transition sentence, perhaps something like this might work better: “Even our bathroom’s oak-leaf wall covering and small Monet prints take me, transfixed, to the edge of the universe.”]

A loud farm truck, just beyond the patch of forest where a primitive dirt road lies, disturbs the sunset’s peace. The doe snaps her head in the truck’s direction, then runs the other way. Her whitetail’s flag bounces and disappears like a candle losing its flame on a breezy windowsill. I turn my head, look at the kitchen clock, and realize how long I’ve been lost in thought, gazing at the doe. Apollo is finishing his daily flight [the cape thing seemed trite, but Apollo might be pretentious], and now there is work to be done. Never, though, do I feel that I have wasted time with my deer. I know they’ll be back one day. One will break off, and we’ll connect again.

***[The Apollo reference seems out of place or at least hard to understand. How about some thing along these lines: “I turn my head and look at the kitchen clock and realize how long I’ve been lost in thought, gazing at the doe. My soul returns to earth. Now there is work to be done. Never, though . . .”]

***[The sentence, “My soul returns to earth” brings closure to your imagination’s trip “to the edge of the universe.” It also creates a parallel to the truck startling the deer. That is, the clock brings you back to reality. So, then, you have created two loops and closed them: (1) the deer ponders nature instinctively and is startled back to self-preservation, and (2) the deer inspires your intellectual ponderings and the clock clips your imagination’s wings.

Quite honestly, there’s a lot of subtle stuff going on in this essay. Again, I’ll predict that it will stand far above 98% of the drivel admissions officers have to read. In musical terms, your essay reminds me of a Brahms Intermezzo. It’s simple and beautiful on the surface, but there’s a heck of a lot of art going on underneath. I wouldn’t mess with this much more. Too many tweaks may spoil the impact.]

Keep up the great work!