Can Essay Offer Advice

(Just here for the contest? Click here to jump to the details. )

Young, eager, and ready to begin a thriving career in book publishing is how I arrived in NYC several years ago. With a Masters degree in English literature in hand and a fresh lease on life, I was primed to discover the next great novel, the it author. I had it all planned out: land a job in a trade publishing house, work my butt off as an editorial assistant, and make my way up through the necessary ranks until I was the person being thanked in the writer’s acknowledgements in the backs of books.

About a month after laying down roots in New York City, I got a call from the HR manager at a large publishing house. A couple of months prior to my move, I’d had an informational interview with a senior editor at one of the imprints who published books I adored; my resume had been on file ever since. There was an opening at another division, the English composition textbook division to be exact. Would I be interested in the position?

Would I ever!

I interviewed and got the job. I’ve learned a lot since then, but if I could go back, I’d tell my bright-eyed and bushy-tailed self this first:

It’s OK to Say No to a Job That’s Not Right for You

Forget about the fact that I wanted to work on fiction. I was just so psyched to be offered a job in editorial that I didn’t give a ton of thought as to what my day-to-day would look like or the fact that it would probably be rather difficult to move from a house that published educational materials to one that aimed to make the New York Times bestseller list. Never mind my previous aspirations; I was willing to throw them away for an opportunity I felt compelled to take.

Looking back on this career move, it’s easy to see how I might’ve done things differently if I knew then what I know now. But, the old cliché rings true: Hindsight’s 20-20.

And the fact is, I’m not 100% sure I made the wrong decision. I’m just not sure it was the right one, and for me, there exists a gray area in between those two extremes. All I could think of was what one candid editor had told me about it taking up to a year to get my foot in the door of an editorial department; his words echoing in my head made me think I’d be a fool if I turned down the offer. I felt not taking the job and searching for work I felt passionately about wasn’t an option for me then.

I was nothing if not overeager, viewing this as my big break into the glamorous and exciting world of publishing. I simply didn’t do a whole lot of reflection, didn’t mull the possibility of waiting for something better, something more in line with my original plan.

I’m not beating myself up over my choice now, but I do think it’s interesting to look back and think, what was the rush? What if I had taken more (read: any!) time to think it over? What if I’d said no, thank you? After all, I had a steady job that paid for my rent and groceries, so it wasn’t a dire cash-flow situation. For all I know, the right position was right around the corner, waiting to be offered to me after my next coffee meeting.

I think about that sometimes, when I read a book that stays with me long after I finish the last page, or when I meet someone who is doing what I once dreamed I’d do. In spite of the fact that I’m an editor, I’m not an editor of books, and I guess I’ll never be. In that acceptance, there’s the knowledge that I don’t, in fact, possess the wherewithal to one day in the future apply for a job at Random House or Norton just because I’ve decided I want to try my hand at long-form editing.

While I don’t doubt that if given the opportunity, I could edit an entire book (for I’d argue, same skills, different approach), it feels like too much of a leap at this stage of my career, not to mention not even something that I’m dying to do.

Years of work experience indicate that I would’ve been OK had I turned down the grammar textbook gig and waited until something more inspiring surfaced. If I’d been patient, would I be an editor at a book publishing house now? Would I maybe have published short stories in a literary magazine instead of personal essays on various websites? Would my work with the next greatest fiction writer have inspired me to pen a novel of my own? Or would I have struggled to find brilliant new writers and, finding myself so fed up, wound up quitting book publishing for a different industry altogether?

I obviously don’t know how not accepting that first editorial assistant offer would’ve played out in my professional life. It’s fun to think about the what-might’ve-been for a moment, but getting mired down with too many what-ifs isn’t going to help me on my current career path, which is just that: a path. My fingers are crossed for a long and interesting professional life.

Now It’s Your Turn

We’re running an essay contest exploring this very theme: What advice would you give to your younger self? It’s easy to look back and think of how you would’ve handled things differently now. So, what do you wish you knew when you started out in your career? In the end, would that knowledge have made a great difference in where you are now?

The Guidelines

If you have a lesson to share or a story to tell, you should send it to submissions(at)themuse(dot)com by June 9 at 6:00 PM ET . Keep your story to under 1000 words and submit it within the body of the email. (No attachments please!). Use the subject line “What I Wish I’d Known.”

Your essay can be funny, serious, poignant, or inspirational—no matter what your experience, we want to hear from you! We’ll be looking for creativity, high-quality writing, and stories that will be engaging to our readers. Anyone and everyone is welcome to enter, so join in, share your lessons, and get your writing noticed!

While we can’t respond to every submission, we will be reading each one and sharing the best advice we see with our community on The Daily Muse and our social media channels. Winner, first runner-up, and second runner-up will be determined at editor's discretion.

The Winner

The winner will receive a $250 cash prize, the first runner-up will receive $150, and the second runner-up will receive $100. In addition, they’ll all have the opportunity to work with an editor and see their work published on The Daily Muse.

Have questions? Email editor(at)themuse(dot)com and we’ll do our best to answer them.

The Legal Stuff

Click here to read the fine print .

With many scholarship application deadlines around the corner (including the FRCC Foundation Scholarship), now seems a perfect time to offer tips for writing a compelling scholarship essay, which can mean the difference between getting a scholarship and not.

I sat down with Ryan McCoy of the FRCC Foundation to get some of his dos and don’ts on scholarship essay writing. Here are a few of his top suggestions:

1. Follow directions.

Amazingly, too many students ignore the essay question(s) being asked on the application, Ryan says. The FRCC Scholarship application is quite simple, and applicants are requested to write one essay—the answer to which determines what types of scholarships one might be eligible for. It asks three questions:

  • Why should the Foundation invest in you?
  • What are your academic and professional goals?
  •  After achieving your academic goals, how will you give back to the community?

Pretty simple. So should you go into extreme detail about your childhood? Probably not.

2. Be concise. Be clear.

“Sometimes we find that students jump around a lot in their essays,” says Ryan. “Whatever you do, try not to ramble. Have a clear and concise argument on why you’re a deserving student.” In other words, make your point quickly. And do it well.

3. Make sure the essay stands alone, but don’t include every detail.

Another big mistake Ryan sees often is students who assume the reader knows their life story. His advice: “Think like a journalist: When you read a newspaper article, it assumes you don’t know anything about that topic,” Ryan says. “The same goes with your scholarship essay. Assume the reader knows nothing about you.”

But don’t go into extreme detail. If an essay offers up too much personal history, it might be hard to follow (and of course, too long). “You want the essay to be easy to read,” says Ryan. “The reviewer should have a sense of who you are after reading it, but should not be confused or overwhelmed.”

As a writer, grammar geek, and someone who has written a lot about getting into (and succeeding in) college, I have a few tips of my own:

4. Plan it out.

Remember those tedious outlines for essays in high school English class? Dust off your notes and plan out your essay carefully, devising a clear structure that conveys a central point or theme. This outline will help you stay organized in delivering your key message and not stray off topic.

5. Don’t rush.

That essay you wrote this morning might not look as great two days from now. Take a stab at a first draft, then set it aside for a day, a week, whatever you can afford. Reviewing it with fresh eyes will give you new insight into how it comes across. Mistakes will pop off the page in a way they didn’t when you read through it ten times the same day you wrote it.

6. Have someone else read it.

Get a teacher, a boss, or even a friend to read your essay and offer their feedback. Does the essay capture who you are? Your journey? Does it make sense? Is it clear and concise?

7. Read it out loud.

I’ve suggested this before in my post on learning to write better, but you’ll no doubt catch a mistake or two when you read something out loud. Don’t send off an essay that is sloppy or has grammar or punctuation errors. Is that really the impression you want to give people who are making a decision on whether or not to award you money?

8. Make it yours.

Before you write a word, spend time thinking about the question being asked. Brainstorm. Some scholarship applications might pose a very specific question, such as “Please tell us about a significant experience that has had a big impact on your life.” Other colleges may ask more general questions, such as “What are your academic and personal goals.” Whatever the question, make your answer personal. Write it from your heart. And don’t try to second-guess the person reading it by writing what you think they’d like to hear.

If you’re struggling with a scholarship essay, what do you find most challenging in the writing process? If you’ve successfully written a killer essay, what tips do you have?


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