Sparkler AwesomePossum214 addressed the following prompt for her college apps: "Tell us about an experience in which you left your comfort zone. How did this experience change you."
Here's a common setup to watch out for as y'all move through college and beyond. Whenever a prompt asks you to write about any sort of "change," they are really asking you to tell them a story. Think about it: what is a story but a stylized description of change over time, told with a clear beginning, middle, and end? Structure can be just as important as content when responding to a prompt like this.
So, did our awesome Possum friend write a story, or an essay? Let's find out together as she gets ready to bust a move…
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The faint, glowing light twinkles off my costume as I stretch my legs one last time. I test the tip of my dance sneakers, flat so I can do my tricks with ease. I stand in the back and the music starts. Hold, 2,3,4 … We all get into our block. 1, 2, 3,4 …The first group moves. By count 4 my nerves melt away, 5, 2, 3, 4 … I shove my leg out and move to my start. My dance teacher, Gina smiles, I’ve spent many a practice struggling with the sashay.
When I tell peers that I take lyrical hip-hop and break dancing, I’m often given a strange glance. “You?” Someone will ask, “I can’t believe you of all people break dance!”. I always smile and give a chuckle.
Truly, when I began hip hop at age 15 I was stepping out of my bubble. Before dance I played what many call, “country club sports”, the usual tennis and golf. However, there is something about completing a six-step into a round-the-world that gives me a sense of achievement, that a perfect backhand or hole in one can’t. I never did think that I would enjoy dance very much, but I’m reminded of my growing passion for it every time I enter the studio. I love my studio with its marked up floors and wall mirror daring you to move. I appreciate my teacher Gina for her hard work, something tells me it was difficult to get me to look like a dancer.
I’ve learned so much from dance class. I’ve become more flexible and fit, I’ve begun to eat healthy, and I’ve gained a sense of confidence. This sense of confidence has expanded in my life as well.
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Okay, before we go any further: Snapppp! You guys are all doing such an awesome job hooking us right away in these essays. This opening paragraph is another great example. Possum's anecdotal lead gives us a character, a scene, and the tension of a person exiting her comfort zone (addressing the essay prompt) right in the first five lines, and that's more than enough to keep an ADD-ravaged, tumblr-happy mind like mine reading on. There are a few elements P could add into this paragraph to give it even more bite, but we'll get to that in a minute. First…
Some Comma Control
It's a suspicious coincidence that this prose-policing punctuation mark looks like a little lasso in mid-swing; the comma is your go-to dude for wrangling and grouping thoughts, and for keenly controlling the flow of your words. See, right here? How you just paused for half a second in your brain? Ba-boom. Y'all just been comma'd.
Look at the relationship between words this comma creates in Possum's first paragraph: "My dance teacher, Gina smiles, I’ve spent many a practice struggling with the sashay." Right now, the way those two commas bracket "Gina smiles" suggests that this is the dance teacher's full name, which I don't think is what Possum wants to convey. The second comma should go after "Gina" instead of "smiles" to make it clear these two thoughts are independent and that "Gina" is the sole pronoun immediately supplementing "dance teacher." After "smiles" should be a period. That second comma, as is, turns the rest of this sentence into a run-on with two independent subjects and verbs. These indie clauses make more sense and give a greater oomph as two separate sentences, like so:
"My dance teacher, Gina, smiles. I’ve spent many a practice struggling with the sashay."
Also, according to most style manuals, the comma after a quotation (like "country club sports" in paragraph three) should go inside the quotes, not outside. No grammatical justification here—it just looks prettier, I guess—but you'll nevertheless need to keep them rogue commas in check for many a multi-sourced college research paper to come.
Anyway, let's get to the meat of this language banquet.
Is This a Story?
Right now Possum's essay encompasses just one scene, which can definitely be enough to convey a complete story. In an essay this short, there's not much time to go beyond one full scene, anyway. But while there's a clear beginning, middle, and end to the action of the scene, it's missing a complete emotional or psychological arc, and that's what's really gonna sell the story of the narrator's change as she busts out of her comfort zone.
One way Possum can achieve this full arc in a single scene is putting something at stake right away. Why is this particular performance important? Maybe it's the first time Possum presented her hip-hop skillz in front of an audience, and her confidence rides on a flawless dance. Maybe this performance is the symbolic point of departure from Possum's rep as a girl who only plays "country club sports," and she needs to nail it to prove to herself and her friends that she's changed. Whatever it is, we should know by the first few sentences what is driving Possum emotionally so that her eventual triumph at the end of the dance has meaning and we can all fist-pump together! Here's just one example of how our writer could set up her story by weaving some backstory details from the third paragraph into the scene of the first paragraph:
The faint, glowing light twinkles off my costume as I stretch my legs one last time. It's hard to hide how crazy I'm sweating right now. This is the first time I've publicly performed anything my friends wouldn't consider a "country club sport," and I know I must look ridiculous. No time to worry about it. The music just started, and I'm in my zone.
See how this scene becomes more of a story when the narrator lets us into her emotions a little? Weaving those backstory details into the scene instead of ending the action after one paragraph and going into abstract narration also gives the story a more organic flow. There's no need to confine this awesome moment in the dance hall to one paragraph—stretch it our over the whole essay and take your time building to a triumphal conclusion.
That's the other big thing—this current ending doesn't feel like an ending. It leaves us hanging, wondering how the performance went. Possum should definitely bring us back to the tense action of that opening scene and let us see her nail her final trick. Or maybe the real ending is right after the performance, when a friend walks up to our narrator and then says something like "I can’t believe you of all people break dance!” And then our narrator finally owns up to her skills with confidence.
However Possum chooses to frame her pivotal breakdancing performance, the important thing is that she keep the essay in the confines of that clear time and place, and give us something to root for. AwesomePossum: Try setting some stakes at the beginning of the essay and working as many of those backstory details from the third paragraph into the narrative. But, more importantly, DEFINITELY incorporate more specific terminology like "six-step into a round-the-world" into your prose, because that's unique and awesome and will set this essay far apart from others who chose the same prompt. Personal essays are a writer's chance to humblebrag the bejeesus out of his/her awesome and unique talents. So rub our faces in those tricks you do!
Good luck, AwesomePossum. Thanks for being bold!
What advice do you have for AwesomePossum?
How would you tweak this essay into a more complete story?
Any other hip-hop dancers in the house?
To have your essay (publicly) critiqued, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org!