Not literally. Figuratively. What I'm getting at is this:

What expression are you trying to put on your reader's face?

That expression is your essay's emoticon. Sometimes, it isn't easy to figure out. Here's a conversation that gets repeated over and over:

Me: What do you want the reader to feel? Student: I want the reader to know...

But I didn't ask about what the reader should know. I asked about what the reader should feel. That's harder but also more important. If your reader feels nothing after reading your essay, you have failed to connect.

When I'm helping a student figure out her essay's emoticon, I usually start with two questions.

Question #1: What was a time when you had a strong feeling?

Your answer is a good clue about what you want your reader to feel. We all like it when someone else feels what we went through.

Look at the question again. It asks about a "time." The smaller that measure of time, the easier you'll find it to write about. 500 words isn't enough space to cover years. If you try, you'll end up giving a 30,000-foot airplane view of your life, a quick flyover of a too-vast landscape. Think seconds or minutes, not weeks or years. Think about a thin slice of time you can place under a microscope and examine in detail.

The feeling you choose for your seconds or minutes could be positive - joy, excitement, relief - or negative - fear, disappointment, shame. Anything. Whatever feeling you choose is your essay's emoticon.

Question #2: What was going on around you?

Think about your slice of time, the one you're going to put under the microscope. Now all you have to do is apply two sophisticated techniques you learned in elementary school. First, ask, "Who, what, where, when, why?" Hooray for the 5 Ws. Second, ask, "What did I see, hear, smell, taste, and touch?" Hooray for the 5 senses. When you answer all these questions, the reader can start to see the world from your perspective.

This Is "Showing"

"Showing" means giving the audience raw sensory data to interpret. "Telling" means giving the reader an interpretation of that data. For example, when you watch Game of Thrones, you are experiencing "showing" because you are watching the characters and interpreting their actions and motives for yourself. But when you miss an episode and your friend tries to catch you up, you are experiencing "telling" because you are getting his interpretation, not the raw data.

And of course, though you appreciate your friend's effort, you'd much rather see the episode for yourself. Your reader would also much rather be shown than told.

When you show - by giving the reader the 5Ws and the 5 senses - the reader enters your head and sees what you saw, hears what you heard. Walking in your shoes to get your perspective allows the reader to connect with you.

Final Thoughts

Before you write, at least think about your essay's emoticon: what you want your reader to feel. Start by thinking of some moments when you had strong feelings. Continue by writing out the 5Ws and the 5 senses for those moments. That's one approach for connecting with your reader.

Good luck writing!


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.