Writing: Essays

Anessay is an attempt. And here we have the hard truth of essays: most of them fail. To make an attempt implies that failure and success are equally possible, though everyone knows failure is almost always more likely than success. Our imperfect human condition reveals this time and again.

This is how classic essayists approached their craft. The idea was not to succeed or die, but to attempt success over and over and over again. Failure wasn't a reason to stop trying, but a neccessary element of success. Victory wasn't possible unless it was preceeded by defeat.

Before you learn anything else about writing, you have to understand this principle. Great writers don't pick up a pen and wield it like a magic wand; they pick up a pen again and again, using it to put words on a page, and often falling short of greatness.

All successful writers are, in a sense, essayists. But a more specific definition of an essayist has less to do with the writer himself and everything to do with what he writes. An essayist is a writer who attempts to say something significant in an original or new way, usually by way of analogy.

Most essays are nonfiction prose, and most begin with something mundane and move toward a universal truth. By this definition, Michel de Montaigne was probably the best essayist of all time: well-read even by Renaissance standards, Montaigne was a French philosopher whose observational essays were platforms for his thoughts on life, God, the universe, and everything else.

A legendary modern essayist is the American writer Annie Dillard. Most of her books are collections of thoughts on life and religion sparked by her observation of the natural world. Unlike Montaigne who seemed to get it right nearly every time, Dillard clearly fails often, though her successes are brilliant.

Why is it important for beginning writers to be so aware of the reality of failure? Because they will fail. Initially, failure will outweigh success, and if beginners aren't aware that failure is necessary, all but the most tenacious will simply give up....or think what they write is better than it is.

Despite the narrow definition of essay offered above, there are many essay types. Typically, you'll hear about four major ones: expository, persuasive, narrative, and argumentative. Expository essays explain; persuasive essays persuade; narrative essays use anecdotes and stories to make a point; and argumentative essays present a position based on research and study.

Different writers and educators will cite their own lists of essay types, but usually any type they identify falls into one of these categories. Some people also point out that essays can be short (Dillard's are often less than a page) or quite long (John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understandingapproaches 800 pages).

When we say essay, we're referring to a brief written attempt to explain something, persuade people of something, tell a real-life story, or present an argument or analysis of a particular topic. Many essays fall into more than one category, but student writers should stay largely within single boundaries until they've mastered the art.

Too often, students (whether in middle school, high school, or college) think all essays should be "academic" in nature, and that creativity is either undesirable or unnecessary. NOTHING COULD BE FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH. Many essays are uncreative and boring, but those are the ones that fail. Successful essays are rooted in reality, they're creative, and they say something significant in a winsome and unique way.

Is this easier said than done? Of course. If you've been assigned to write an essay about something that made you sad, easy would be this:

When I was fourteen I got my third dog. My other two dogs died. I loved my dog very much. Her name was Olga. She was a black Labrador and she was smart and fun. Then she got skin cancer. We had to put her down. I cried and cried.

This fails badly. Most important, there's nothing relatable for us to hold onto. We're given facts, but they're out of context and bland. We get generalizations, not specifics, and writing without specificity is pointless. Finally, the author provides absolutely no analysis, so we're left with nothing but a kind of nihilistic angst.

Consider this version:

Most people bury their best friends when they're old. I was a teenager.Olga was my third dog, and my fourteen-year-old brain told me that unlike Biscuit and Scooter, the healthy Black Lab couldn't die.I trained her faithfully. She literally brought me whatever book I was reading when I asked; she invented her own version of soccer; and when I winked, she laughed at my jokes.
She also slept under my bed every night. When she abruptly stopped shortly after my seventeenth birthday and began lying on the cold kitchen tiles, I wondered why. The vet told me Olga had skin cancer and would need to be euthenized.I turned down the option to hold her as the veterinarian administered the lethal injection, but I carried her body home in a white bag and buried Olga in the back yard. To say I missed her is to miss the point: I needed her back to lick away my stinging tears.

Neither of these examples are essays (and neither represents the author's best work), but it's easy to see the difference between them, and how the second succeeds where the first fails. The second has detail, depth, and pathos capable of sounding a resonant chord in readers, while the first will stir as much emotion as a newspaper article about turkey farming.

The ability to write good essays is invaluable, and will serve students throughout their academic careers. Their usefulness doesn't end there, however: capable essayists are better able to communicate ideas and feelings to others, better able to compose emails and letters, and generally more articulate and eloquent overall.

At the heart of the definition and descriptions of essays contained here is the overriding truth that, without an underlying idea or point to get across, any essay will fail. Writing is about communication: if you have nothing to communicate, any writing you attempt will be disjointed, nonsensical, or shallow.

Essays are one of the best ways to attempt to say something worthwhile in a way that readers will enjoy, and that will cause them to think about a familiar topic in a new way. Without something valid to say, your essays will fail. With a clear point, even if your execution isn't perfect, your essay has a much greater chance of succeeding rather than falling on its face.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviewshere.

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