Writing a Real College Essay: Part 4 - Drafts


Welcome back. This is Part 4 of this video series on the process of writing a college essay where I’m working my way through a real college essay assignment.

In the last video I showed you the outline document I used to organize my thoughts and follow up on research sources. That ended with me just about to start writing my first draft.

I’ve gone and done that, and in this video I’m going to show you what I ended up with and talk about some of the issues that came up during the writing process.

Here’s how I started the draft. My exported document notes are in a pane on the right, my draft document is on the left. Sometimes I worked in fullscreen mode but most of the time I worked like this.

One of the things I did not do, but which I could have done, is break down the paper sections in the binder beforehand, where you would create separate documents for each section and work on the separately.

For longer projects this is certainly what I do, but the page limit for this assignment is only four to five pages, so it’s actually quite short, and I had a good idea of what I wanted to do going in, so it was manageable for me to try a first draft where I just wrote it straight through from beginning to end, and that’s what I did.

Rather than walk you through the whole thing, let me just show you an outline of the draft and put them up side-by-side so you can see what sections of the draft correspond to what sections of the outline.

It’s a pretty standard argumentative essay structure, with a main argument followed by a set of objections, followed by replies to each of those objections. The outline shows the premises of the main argument. In the body of the essay these become section headings, because each of these need to be substantiated. The bulk of the essay consists in offering supporting reasons to persuade the reader that the claims are true, or at least plausible.

In the last video I said that I was going to try to integrate objections and replies into the presentation of the main argument, but when I started writing these sections I quickly changed my mind, most for efficiency and clarity reasons.

If I had more space and a looser structure I could have done it the other way, but here I decided to separate out not only the objection section but also the replies section.

I wouldn’t write this way for, say, a magazine article, but for an argumentative college research essay, it’s very efficient, and it has the benefit of being clear about the argument structure.

Now let me make a few points about this first draft.

First, notice that it has no citations in it. With the first draft you don’t want the flow of your writing to be interrupted too much by worrying about how to document your claims. If you’ve done your research in advance you should have a good idea of whose ideas you’re borrowing from when you’re writing, but unless your draft involves working with direct quotations, where you’re calling out a particular source by name, you can save your citations for a separate stage of the writing process.

Another point to note is that this draft overshot the page range by a good margin. The assignment asked for an essay of four to five double-spaced pages. What I have here is eight double-spaced pages.

So let’s talk about what you do when you find yourself going long in your draft.

First, you should know that going long is very, very common in essay writing. A lot of beginning student writers worry about not having enough to write about, but with just a little experience the problem often becomes having too much to write about and not knowing how to keep the paper from running away from you.

My recommendation for first drafts is not to worry about page numbers and word counts. Your goal should be to plow through and write something that fulfills your goals and has a beginning, a middle and an end.

Focus on your language and how it communicates the argumentative structure that you’re going for. At this stage you’re still very much in problem-solving mode, where you’re working out your own thoughts on what you want to say and how you want to say it.

I saw very early that I was going to go long, but I pushed through and wrote it the way I wanted to write it, knowing that it would need editing later.

It’s like when you’re making a film or a video, when you’re shooting scenes and getting as much coverage as possible, and this becomes raw material that the editor can use to shape the story, and a lot gets left on the cutting room floor. But you had to shoot the scenes first to have something to cut and something to keep.

First drafts of essays are allowed to be messy and a little indulgent. When you’re done, now you’ve got something that you can shape and refine.

Now, another tip is that after your draft is done, take a break from it for a day. When you look at it again you don’t want to be exhausted, you want to have fresh eyes and a little distance from it so you see more clearly what works and what doesn’t.

Also, if this is a real assignment for a class and you’ve gone over the assignment word range, you might want to talk to your instructor first about how firm they are with the length. Some instructors are happy to have you go over if they think it helps to make for a better paper.

I decided to write this draft on the assumption that I’d need to cut a couple of pages.

Now when you’re cutting, you need to be aware of what sorts of cuts are matters of style and presentation, and what sorts actually affect the substance of your argument.

Style cuts involve deleting unnecessary words or sentences or paragraphs that don’t affect the overall argument structure. They might be painful cuts because you really love that anecdote or that clever turn of phrase, but they leave the underlying structure of the essay intact.

Structure cuts can actually change the argument you’re giving. You need to be careful doing this, because you don’t want to undermine the structural integrity of the essay.

The only elements you should cut are ones for which, if you delete them from the argument, your conclusion would still follow. If you’ve got three good points supporting a claim, and you cut one you’ve still got two good supporting points. If your essay address three natural objections to your argument, if you cut some then you’re still doing due diligence by considering one or two natural objections.

Whatever you do, you don’t want to undermine a central premise of an argument, or raise an objection and cut the reply to it — every objection that you raise should have a corresponding reply of some kind.

For this essay draft I duplicated it first before doing anything to it. Always hold on to your earlier drafts, you never know when you might want to retrieve something from an earlier draft.

I made a first pass where I made just a few stylistic cuts, and my word count from over 2400 words to 1765 words. That’s still six pages double-spaced.

Then I did a second pass and I got it down to under 1500 words, which is about five pages. I consider this close enough to the page limit to count as fitting within the guidelines of the assignment.

This version is more terse and concise than the original. I dropped anecdotes and parenthetical remarks; I cut the argument summary in the concluding section; I dropped the use of a particular article by a particular artist, Noah Bradley, a framing device that I introduced in the first draft; and I cut some supporting paragraphs that were not essential.

For example, look at this section where I’m elaborating on the claim that art schools don’t teach students how to produce professional quality art. In the original draft, this section has an introductory paragraph, a paragraph that makes a key point, a third paragraph that adds a qualification to a claim, and a reply.

In the five page draft I cut the qualifying discussion and compressed the first two paragraphs into one. I like the longer version better, but this version does the job well enough.

So here’s my draft. I lost some things that I liked when I cut it from eight pages to five, but I also tightened up the writing in some places, so stylistically it’s a tradeoff for sure.

But more importantly, I didn’t lose any of the main original structural features of the first draft. I still have the original argument with the same objections and replies.

If anything the argument is clearer because it’s more concise, and there isn’t as much superfluous language to distract from it. From the perspective of structural readability, that’s a win.


Well I hope this was helpful for you. Here are some of the key take-away points when it comes to writing your first draft:

1. First drafts are allowed to go long and meander. Try not to edit yourself too much at this stage. Your goal is to push through and produce a completed piece of writing with a beginning, middle and an end.

2. Don’t worry about citing references at this stage. That will come later.

3. When editing for length, be careful to distinguish stylistic cuts from structural cuts.

4. Preserving the structural integrity of the essay is a priority. Don’t cut anything that will substantially weaken your argument.

In the next video we’ll look at the process I went through to add a reference list and supporting citations to this essay.