Essay Writing Tips from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life

Annie Dillard is one of the great artisans of nonfiction writing; she’s perhaps best-known for her 1979 essay about witnessing an eclipse. Dillard is also the author of a short book called The Writing Life, which invites readers into her study to see what really goes on there.

As it turns out, Dillard battles the same foes that any of us do when we try to write—she procrastinates, gets so distracted by some cows she can see out her window that she sketches them, gets so distracted by a children’s softball game going on outside that she runs out to join it, and needs to drink just the right amount of coffee for the day to go well.

Some of the most stirring parts of the book relate to that early-to-middle part of the writing process, when you realize that the thing you thought you were writing about is actually something else. Dillard writes eloquently about this moment of recognition, and I’m discussing it today because it’s a highly applicable experience to writing a college application essay.

Dillard’s work often proceeds by seeming contradiction. In the first chapter of The Writing Life, she initially makes the case for a kind of writing in which the author tries “to perfect a piece of prose as it progresses.” Then she radically reverses course and makes the case for the opposite kind of writing:

“The reason not to perfect a work as it progresses is that, concomitantly, original work fashions a form the true shape of which it discovers only as it proceeds, so the early strokes are useless, however fine their sheen. Only when a paragraph’s role in the context of the whole work is clear can the envisioning writer direct its complexity of detail to strengthen the work’s ends.”

Why does Dillard seem to contradict herself here? The truth is that both methods are valid, and we need to be aware that, whichever method we choose, we’ll probably need to go back and make changes later.

Write with an eye on perfecting the little details, and you might write yourself into a corner. Write with an eye on the big picture, and some of the things you write at the beginning won’t make it into the final piece.

Discarding work is often frustrating for young writers, but Dillard helps us understand that it’s actually perfectly normal—as normal as building a new house out of the shell of an old one. “You can save some of the sentences,” Dillard writes, “like bricks.”

College application essays tend not to have a straightforward genesis; it’s rare for students to know exactly what they’re going to write, and precisely how they’ll do it, at the very start.

Of course, brainstorming is still important, as there are many structural questions that you should try to answer before you put pen to paper. (For example, questions like, “Which scenes or ideas will I use? What order will they go in?”). But be prepared to revise those plans as you write.

Application essays are an act of self-discovery: you often have to learn what the essay is about—or in other words what the story you’re telling a group of academic strangers is about—as you write it.

So, if you find that the “bricks” you set down at the beginning don’t fit the shape that your essay has begun to take, there’s nothing wrong with removing and replacing them. Doing so shows that you’re honing down your writing into the best form that it can have.

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