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How to write a good essay

by T.J. Nelson

How to write a good essay

L 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.

Specific tips

Here are the specific tips that I discovered in my extensive Internet research (I spent almost a half hour doing this!).

  1. If you only have a little to say, use a really big font. But if you have almost nothing at all to say, or if your idea is incredibly banal and stupid, consider using Twitter instead.
  2. Quote somebody important. A good quote makes your reader think you are a profound thinker. Example:
    “The Greek philosopher Parmenides said, ‘It is necessary to speak and to think what is; for being is, but nothing is not.’”
  3. Make sure your article doesn't cover up the blinking, animated JavaScript advertisements on your page. We all know those ads are the most important thing, but you need to make sure your article is still readable if they have JavaScript and Flash turned off. If users just see a white page, they'll think the FBI has finally caught up with you.
  4. Try not to mangle the English language too much. Some people will stop reading at the first misspelled word, the first misplaced apostrophe, or the first dangling participle. Another tip is to include an occasional verb in your essay. But don't get carried away. Lay off the adjectives. Adjectives are bad.
  5. Avoid purple prose and obscure words. You might relish your one and only chance to use the word ‘ywympillit’ instead of ‘wrapped,’ but your readers will just think you're being a *****.
  6. The first paragraph must explain why you're writing, why it's important, and why you're qualified to talk about it. You also need a hook that gets the reader interested. It helps to include a joke. Example:
    “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.
    (The answer, in case you didn't know, is ‘Be nice to him.’ It's an old joke, and very famous, but it has lately been officially declared Not Funny.)
  7. Afterward, go through and eliminate every paragraph, sentence, and word that doesn't pertain to your argument, no matter how witty they may be. Then remove every sentence that sounds stupid. At this point, there will most likely be nothing left, and you might as well post it as a tweet.
    Typical tweet
  8. If that doesn't work, put some pictures of cats or sexy chicks in your article.
  9. Try not to insult people by name. If you do, you run the risk of ending up like a New York Times columnist.
  10. Pros will tell you the only thing that really counts is whether the reader stays awake to the end. This isn't easy, because if your article goes over 140 characters they lose interest. But if you put your readers to sleep, they'll think your essay was all just a bad dream, and they won't cite you, which is very, very bad.

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.

See also:

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jan 30, 2015; revised feb 02, 2015; updated mar 17, 2015 On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise