I couldn't help feeling amused, and just a little vindicated, by a recent magazine article by an acclaimed journalist. The subject matter was serious, but what had me chuckling was a reference to an "extremely pregnant" woman.
Immediately I was taken back to my childhood, when my brother and I bought some fish for our aquarium. The pet store employee had told us that one fish was "slightly pregnant," a phrase that we repeated later, sending my school teacher mother and college student sister into spasms of laughter.
Someone is either pregnant or not; there are no degrees of pregnancy, they explained between guffaws. Although I understood their point, to this day I still A.) don't get what they found so darn funny about it, and B.) remain unconvinced that we had committed a crime against the English language. Even so, I can imagine the hilarity in the teachers' lounge when Mom repeated the story to her tickled co-workers.
The magazine piece featuring the "extremely pregnant" woman reminded me that the way we communicate with each other, although governed by detailed rules of grammar, syntax and style, remains highly subjective. If an award-winning writer judged it acceptable to reference levels of pregnant-ness, then I shouldn't feel too chagrined that my naive 9-year-old self made a similar call.
More to the point, what's the big deal, as long as we make ourselves understood? Indeed, in her excellent column, "A Word, Please," grammar expert June Casagrande often supports less rigid interpretations. (I became a fan when she defended split infinitives.)
Why do I bring this up?
Because every year around this time I start hearing from frazzled parents and brain-fried incoming high school seniors facing one of the most dreaded and fraught-filled exercises in their stressful lives: the college essay.
These personal statements, as they are more formally called, are the last hurdles students must overcome to complete their college applications. I am often asked to review these essays and give suggestions to students who are invariably nervous, terrified even, that their efforts will fall short. After years of study, the English language remains a hated, formidable enemy out to thwart their college ambitions.
In an attempt to demystify the process, I offer advice that I've picked up over a long career of writing and finding myself regularly on the losing end of arguments with editors. I've also picked up a few pointers gleaned from years of observing students struggling with their essays. Here are a few of my tips:
• Worry about what anyone else writes or how they write. Only you have lived your life; you have a unique story and voice, so don't try to follow a formula or conform to some preconceived notions about what admissions officials like.
• Let your parents or anyone else write it for you. This is your chance to express yourself. Own it. Besides, parent-written essays are easily spotted.
• Write a term paper. This isn't about impressing anyone with your expertise or arguing a position. It's meant to reveal something about you that isn't apparent elsewhere in your application.
• Be sincere. The best essays come straight from the heart. That's far more important than pristine grammar.
• Show, don't tell. I've heard this a million times over the years from some very smart editors. If, for example, you write about someone who has had a huge impact on your life, don't just tell readers that this person is great. Paint a picture using anecdotes, examples and telling little details.
• Have an English teacher or someone similar proofread your essays for glaring errors — the big no-nos which, despite my previous comments, will reflect badly. I've seen far too many well-educated people who write "a lot" as one word and, believe it or not, a few essays in which students misspelled the names of the schools to which they were applying.
• Keep it simple. In my estimation, this is the most important point.
• Don't exhaust readers with overly complicated sentences and big, fancy words. I've had editors who have ruthlessly forced me to confront my cluttered writing, and chop unnecessary words, sentences, and even paragraphs that I clung to with foolish insecurity. Even now, every time I write I must remind myself that it's best just to tell a story straight.
I find it helps to get inspired by some of the most-memorable lines from literature and film: "To be or not to be." "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." "I coulda been a contender."
Sparely written, yet packed with meaning.
But ultimately writing is simply about making ourselves understood. In the case of the aforementioned magazine piece, I'm sure readers had no trouble picturing an "extremely pregnant" woman as one with a swollen belly close to giving birth. Sorry Mom, but I still think my "slightly pregnant" line was good enough to convey my meaning without causing a laugh riot.
So my message to anxious college essayists comes down to this: Even professionals don't always agree on what's good, bad, right, or wrong, so just relax and do your best. Of course, given the crazy, high-stakes college admissions game, I know better. In a few months high school seniors across the land will be extremely pregnant with anticipation.
I think you all know what I mean.
PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.