On Writing Essays

by Charles Miller on September 3, 2004

The most obvious difference between real essays and the things one has to write in school is that real essays are not exclusively about English literature. Certainly schools should teach students how to write. But due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature. And so all over the country students are writing not about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, but about symbolism in Dickens. -- Paul Graham, The Age of the Essay.

Not to pick on Graham again, but it's a bad sign when an essay about how to write essays loses you in the first paragraph. Not content with this feat, Graham proceeds to beat this straw man of the education system to death for another 1200 words before saying anything particularly interesting about essay-writing.

Maybe I'm wrong, and the American education system is totally screwed up, but when I was at school, essay-writing wasn't solely the domain of English Literature classes. All the humanities subjects were assessed through essays, and even some of the sciences had essay-like components.

Even focusing solely on English; where I went to school (Western Australia), the subject was taught as a hybrid of literature and writing: one week you would write an essay on, yes, symbolism in Dickens; the next you would write a short story about medieval peasants; the next you would write an opinion essay on whether violence in television is really such a bad thing.

In the last two years of high school, you had the opportunity to continue to study English or move to English Literature. All the smart kids did Lit, because WA's oldest university didn't recognise English as a qualification.

The sneaky part was that at the end of year 12, in your Tertiary Entrance Exams, you were allowed to sit for English regardless of whether you'd studied the subject1. Many students did. The Literature students inevitably blitzed the English exam, scoring 95-100% with no preparation. Obviously, switching to Lit. hadn't done their general English skills any damage.

But what does this really have to do with Graham's essay? Not much, in the end. The leader about the history of Literature in schools was completely unnecessary for the rest of the piece. That's right: an essay about writing essays started with 1200 words that when they weren't wrong, they were irrelevant, and when they weren't irrelevant, they were just plain dull. Which leads me to my first piece of advice:

Start Strongly

The beginning of an essay is the most important part. This is where you have to draw the reader's attention, and establish your credibility. Even if you (as Graham does) have credibility with your readers before the essay even begins, you still need to establish that it extends to whatever it is you are now writing about.

I don't mean you should start explaining what your qualifications are. Actions speak louder than words (even when, strictly speaking, those actions are words as well). Don't say why you should be considered an authority: say something that by itself establishes your authority.

(I also recognise that I'm sort of breaking my own rule here. Mail me a stamped, self-addressed envelope, and I will send back a picture of me not caring.)

Which, in turn, leads me to:

Know Your Areas of Competence

Traditionally, knowledge is defined as "justified, true belief." When you try to share your knowledge in your essay, you have to impart your justified belief to others, so they will also accept its truth. The weaker your belief, or the weaker your justification, the less successful you're going to be having it accepted as knowledge.

Some of my most embarrassing blogging moments have come when I've stepped outside those things that I know, but have (usually through arrogance) not toned down my strident belief. Inevitably, I get taken down several notches as a result.

If you're writing outside your zone of competence, outside those things you truly know, it's time to introduce a tone of inquiry to your essay. Stop stating what is, and admit what might be. Own up to any grey areas in advance. You will in fact be more persuasive that way.

Have a Point of View

Graham quite rightly points out that an essay doesn't have to be the defense of a particular position: an essay should be written in the spirit of inquiry. (Something that shouldn't surprise anyone used to school essay questions that inevitably started or ended with "discuss". Is the American education system really that bad?)

Equally true, though, is that essays should be interesting, and nobody writes an interesting essay on a subject they have no opinion about. So when in doubt, have a point of view, and argue it.

That said, you don't have to finish an essay with the same opinions with which you started it. One of the reasons Bowling for Columbine was a much better movie than Farenheit 9/112 was that the latter was the didactic pursuit of a single viewpoint, while the former portrayed an evolving point of view. Watching the process by which someone changes their mind can be more engaging, and more convincing.

Finally, and to move from substance to form:

Aim For 1000 Words.

When I was at University, the ideal length for an undergraduate essay hovered between 3000-4000 words. The single exception was first-year Philosophy. First-year Philosophy essays had to be 750 words. This is because Philosophy tutors are smart. 750 words forces students to be brutal about culling unnecessary words, and significantly cuts down the professors' workloads. Most students managed to say the same thing in 750 words that they would have in 3,000, minus a mass of flowery verbiage.

I find when I'm reading material online, each article is allotted a relatively small time-slice. Even when I have time to spare, the web is very unforgiving to long pages of text. Unless an article is very engaging, the longer the article is, the more I will scan instead of reading it. 1,000 words seems to be my sweet-spot, both for reading and writing blog posts.

If you have something that just can't be expressed in 1000 words, consider breaking your essay into multiple parts, where each stands well enough alone to convince people to queue up the next, and have the attention clock begin again. Alternatively, consider writing a 1,000 word "Readers Digest" post, and link to a longer, complete version (perhaps a PDF that readers can print out and read on the train).

1 This practice was discontinued the year I took my TEEs.
2 While Moore's politics often agree with my own, I don't want to argue them here, and they are largely irrelevant to the point I'm making with this example.

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