When writing, never underestimate the value of a fresh set of eyes

I had just finished working with a very important client (henceforth known as “my niece”) to help her fine-tune her college application essay. Upon completion, she was so excited to have it done that she planned to send it out immediately. I had one word for her:

Wait.

I told her to read it again. Think about it. Go to sleep. Get a good night’s rest. Read it again in the morning with a fresh pair of eyes.

You can imagine how thrilled my niece was to take this advice, after working on her essay for weeks and just wanting it to be over with. We all know that frustration; putting so much mental energy into a project that it becomes physically painful to give any more. Who can blame her?

But I inspired her with wisdom from Confucius about patience and education: “The worst colleges are full of kids who rushed to submit their applications” (I’m no Confucian scholar, but it sounds like something he would probably say, so I took a few liberties).

She begrudgingly took my advice, and the next day noticed a major criterion that her essay did not meet. Because she hadn’t yet submitted it, she was able to make the correction before it was too late.

The lesson? Other than listen to your editor/tutor/uncle? Other than always read the directions carefully? Other than don’t trust quacks who make up Confucius quotes to try to sound enlightened? It’s this:

Time is a powerful tool when writing. When you come back to your writing later, your memory isn’t as fresh, but your eyes are. The more time you can put between the writing and the re-reading, the more the memory fades, the less you rely on what you meant to write or what you think you wrote. This is when you have to really look at your writing again, as if for the first time. This is when you’ll notice the typo, or realize you never addressed a key point, or be inspired with a brilliant way to rephrase that one awkward sentence.

So don’t rush. Give yourself plenty of time, take a break, and then go back. Be patient. Your writing will be better for it.

Confucius didn’t say that; I did.

** Follow-up: I re-read this post years after I originally wrote it, and naturally, found an error, so I fixed it. I love when my errors illustrate my point; being wrong proves me right. Confucius said that.


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When less than the minimum is more than enough

Sometimes, it’s advantageous to do less than the minimum.

That’s the best lesson college taught me about writing. Professors would assign a paper with a 1,000-word minimum, and I would tempt fate by turning in just under 800 words. Usually, though, I would get it back with an “A” and a few illegible but probably positive comments scrawled across the last page.

The key, as a writer, is to pare down your word count without sacrificing content.

Think about it: professors are people. And people don’t like doing more work than they have to. If you can get your message across in 800 words instead of 1,000, you’ve saved them a couple minutes that they could spend chatting with other professors about literary journals or pipes or leather elbow patches for their blazers. Professors love that stuff.

Now that I’m a teacher, I appreciate the need to set a minimum. If I don’t, the student will skimp on content. I’ve tried to tell bewildered students, “Don’t ask me about the minimum. There is no A in minimum.” But they need some guidance about my expectations, so I need to give them a general goal. Still, when a student submits something shorter than what I asked for – but with an economy of well-chosen words that respects my time and still gives me something sharp, entertaining or insightful to read – that student has earned my respect, an “A,” and quite possibly some positive but poorly hand-written comments.


The Syracuse Pen provides writing and editing services for students, professionals and small businesses. Visit our home page for more information about what we can do for you.