How to write a good essay
by T.J. Nelson
ately I've gotten more critical of essays, including my own. So much so that I have shredded many of mine into their constituent electrons. But what constitutes a good essay? Can a blog be one? What about a Tweet? I don't know. I just don't know anymore, man.
So I did what anybody else would do: I looked it up on the Internet. It turns out many people have some great ideas. These days our time is short. Recognizing this, some authors start out dazzlingly on Page One, but by Page Four, when they know that all but the most dedicated readers (the ones who'll read any old dreck) have clicked away to find out what Taylor Swift is wearing that day, their article turns to gibberish.
So why do they still write? Writing is thinking. The thinking process is incomplete and ideas become stale unless they are expressed. Totalitarian governments know this well. If you don't (or can't) share your ideas, you stop having them. As idea people, they feel compelled to write.
Sometimes it seems to be the sheer enjoyment of hearing themselves babble on and on and on. Other times it's clearly a choice between writing something and shooting somebody. How many lives have been saved by all those Internet articles written in red font with random words in bold italics and their Caps Lock LED lit up like a Christmas tree bulb? A lot, I bet.
Some of us see language as an amazing tool that allows us to create ideas out of nothingness—one of the few miracles on this bleak, meaningless rock as it hurtles through space toward its inevitable doom at 805,334 miles an hour.
So by writing your essay, you're fighting totalitarianism and contributing to the survival of America, truth, justice, democracy, and freedom. And maybe saving lives and cutting your hospital bills.
The writer's dilemma is: if your opinion is the same as everyone else's, it is automatically boring and nobody will read it. If it's different, they will disagree with you and they won't read it, and they'll also call you a racist. So you need courage to do it well. But saying what you really think is hard to do.
Robert Pearce says that an essay should “answer the question, the whole question and nothing but the question.” He says “you have to think and think hard ... eventually you will almost certainly become confused.” This is good because it puts you in the same place as your reader, who by now is probably wondering why they ever started reading.
In technical writing, expectations are a little different. The goal is to make it coherent and readable. This is good advice in science writing, where the material is hard enough for the reader as it is. Citing Petrarch while you're discussing flux compactifications would just be showing off.
Here are the specific tips that I discovered in my extensive Internet research (I spent almost a half hour doing this!).
“The Greek philosopher Parmenides said, ‘It is necessary to speak and to think what is; for being is, but nothing is not.’”
“So I was sitting at home one day updating my blog, and suddenly my computer exploded, sending deadly shards of broken glass into my naked unprotected body. At that moment, I knew what I had to do. I must make the world safe for people like me! Also, how do you make a fruit cordial?”This hook at the end makes the reader want to continue reading. Later in the article, you can reveal the answer, but the reader has to plow through all your other dreck to get to it.
Here's another thing I discovered: big-time magazines all have lawyers who check each article before it goes up, to make sure there's nothing defamatory in it. But if the magazine gets sued, they don't fire the lawyer for failing to do his job. They fire the writer.
No wonder professional writers all sound so grouchy. At least we bloggers are still allowed to have fun. And that seems to be the trick. We're social animals, which means our emotions are transmissible. If you're pissed off, it shows in your article, and your reader will get pissed off too. If you're having fun, it will be fun for the reader. Maybe.
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