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Have a draft of a research statement or personal narrative for your fellowship application? Feel like it’s in pretty good shape, but not sure how to give it that top-level shine? This post suggests a strategy of revision for seeing each part of your essay in a new light. Unlike my previous post, this one is a bit more painstaking—but the potential payoff is huge!

Previously, I referred to the apocryphal “Cambridge” study that your aunt probably forwarded you an email chain about—you know, the one that supposedly found that people can easily make sense of sentences in which words have been wildly misspelled “bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the word as a wlohe.”

Well, in my experience this is actually quite true of writers reading their own work. When we try to revise our own writing, we often overlook gaps in logic, misspelled words, or even words that are missing altogether. Knowing the context of what you’re trying to say allows your brain to fill in the missing links, and the result can be that a personal essay or application narrative you’ve read a dozen times might still have an obvious typo or two. In fact, I would argue it gets more likely that there’s something you’re overlooking the more times you’ve read the same piece of writing.

Once again, I can’t claim credit for this exercise. It was suggested by a writing professor at my undergraduate institution—a pretty well-known fiction writer who had a reputation for prose perfectionism. He told our class once that as an undergraduate he would finish his papers a week in advance, put them in a drawer, then the night before the due date, he would take them out and read them backwards to proofread for errors.

Yep, you heard me: read it backwards. Not, like, word-for-word backwards, but take each sentence in turn, starting from the last one.

The value of the exercise is that it allows you to see each sentence in a totally new light. In particular, this strategy allows you to view each sentence isolated from the context around it. Doing so will almost certainly dredge up a cringe-worthy typo or two. But more than that it often helps me identify sloppy phrases or lazy transitions that I would otherwise zip right past on my fifth or sixth time going through the same piece of writing.

Okay, so this may not be a revision strategy you want to commit to for a three-hundred-page dissertation, but trust me, for a five-page research statement you should be able to get through it in an hour, and your time will almost certainly be better spent than skimming once more in search of errors when your eyes are too accustomed to the piece to notice them anymore.

Revising your proposal with care and in new ways will allow your reader to understand your application better, and to read through it without getting caught up in the small spelling or grammatical errors. This is helpful due to the fact that they are reading through several applications at once. Submitting a ‘clean’ and a clear application will help you stand out among other applicants.

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