By Brittany Mihalec-Adkins
Regardless of how awesome your credentials are, constructing a top-notch application for a competitive fellowship or graduate school can be challenging. You spend countless hours writing and re-writing, and once you have a solid draft, how do you know when you’re done editing?! Our gift to you: 10 hacks for stepping up your editing game:
1. Try reading your essay aloud
This can be awkward if you have roommates, but I like to start the editing process by reading my writing aloud to myself. If a certain clause or sentence sounds clunky when said aloud, I flag it for editing. Sometimes this is the only way to catch typos or awkward wording after you have been looking at the words for weeks on your computer screen.
2. Have your mom/friend/brother/roommate read it
This one might also feel a bit uncomfortable at first, but it can be a real game-changer to get input from a non-academic source. This strategy can help you detect jargon in your application that you or even your academic mentors overlooked because you’re so used to reading academic prose.
3. Trade up some of those adjectives and verbs
One easy way to make your writing more powerful is to swap out your weak verbs and adjectives for beefier ones. Instead of describing your awesome study abroad experience as “great” or “meaningful,” try “once-in-a-lifetime,” “astounding,” or “prodigious.” Instead of recounting how you “worked” in a research lab as a sophomore, talk about how you “executed” tasks, “administered” assessments, and “maintained” study operations. Break out that pocket thesaurus you got for graduation and thought you’d never use (Thanks, Aunt Judy).
4. …but don’t go overboard with the GRE words.
Reviewers want to see that you have mastered the art of language well enough to write creatively– no question about it. However, they will not be impressed by your application if you sprinkle in 17-letter words at every possible opportunity. Show off your vocabulary, not your GRE-word flashcard deck.
5. Cut words that don’t add anything to your point
One of the simplest ways to clean up your writing (and cut words, for those of you counting!) is to ditch words that add nothing to your sentences. For instance, the words “absolutely” and “actually” rarely add anything to a sentence – what’s the difference between saying that you “absolutely loved your experience as a Teaching Assistant” and that you “loved your experience as a Teaching Assistant”? Not much.
6. Triple check for redundancy
While reading through your essay, make sure that you don’t waste words repeating something you have already said. To that same end, make good use of acronyms if you need to repeat proper nouns – especially if you are running low on space.
7. Trim your hedges
This hack took me longer to master, but when I finally did, it greatly improved my academic writing. Hedges (or hedge words) are words that are weak, wishy-washy, or apologetic; they include “seems,” “somewhat,” “nearly,” “almost,” “sometimes,” “partly,” and so on – you get the idea. Why say that a fellowship “seems like it might be a great next step” for your career when you can say that the fellowship “would be a great next step”? Think about this tip as helping you portray more confidence through your writing.
8. Keep re-reading it.
Read and re-read your essay until you know it by heart. Admittedly, it can be hard to know when you have done enough of this, but reading it 15 times helps you catch any awkward wording, noun-verb disagreement, or boring adjectives.
9. Try working backward
Many people advocate for starting the writing process with an outline – this tip suggests trying to END with an outline as well. Try pulling out the main points of our paragraphs, organizing them into outline form, and then analyze the outline. Does it make sense? Do the points follow logically? If not, you know where the gaps are and can brainstorm how to address them.
10. Compare your responses to the application criteria
A good “final” edit will involve comparing, side by side, the application’s writing prompts and/or evaluation criteria to your essay(s). Read carefully through each sentence of the application instructions and go hunting for each piece of criteria in what you have written. For example, if the application asks you to describe your career goals in your personal statement, make sure your career goals are distinctly stated in the essay. This may sound obvious, but after working on an application for months, it can be all too easy to accidentally overlook details about what the selection committee will be looking for. After all of your hard work, this is an easy way to feel good about sending it off.
Brittany Mihalec-Adkins is a first-year National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and second-year Ph.D. student in Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University.
© Victoria Johnson 2017, all rights reserved.