How Essays Work

They begin. They middle. And they end. A reader of this blog has asked me to say a few words about essays, as distinct from research papers, and I am happy to oblige. One way to approach the distinction is to say that the “paper” is really just a special case of the “essay”. Another way is to say that a paper consists of a series of essays, nested inside a bigger one. The easiest way to make the distinction is perhaps to say that an essay is a “freer” form than a research paper, or a more “general” one, while a paper is governed by specific conventions, usually particular to a scientific discipline. Also, papers are more modular, and therefore easier to “skim”. While both should be written so that they can be meaningfully read from beginning to end, the conventional structure of a paper usually allows knowledgeable readers to skip around for the information they need without significant loss of meaning. An essay is more often a single gesture, best read in order, and often in a single sitting. As you can tell, I’m not going to be offering a very rigorous definition of either in this post. I’ll just try to say something about what an essay can do.

Like papers, essays are prose compositions and, like papers, they consist of paragraphs. That means that they govern the reader’s attention roughly one minute at a time, making a point and moving on to another one. Ernest Hemingway thought of his stories as “sequences of motion and fact” and knew that the “great difficulty [was] to write paragraphs that would be [their] distillation”. An essay, we might say, is a series of ideas and opinions that the writer is asking the reader to consider. If you’re writing a research paper, I would encourage you to think of each paragraph as supporting, elaborating, or defending a claim, and you’ll often do that in an essay too; that is, you’ll often be expressing a belief and expecting your reader to believe you. But the loser form of the essay, the more informal situation that it implies between reader and writer, allows you to propose ideas that even you, as the writer, are just “trying on”, “for the sake of argument,” and are ultimately only asking the reader to “entertain”. While you’re both engaged in an collaborative search for “the truth”, each paragraph need not be held to the same standard of “justified, true belief” that I’d recommend for research papers.

The root of the word “essay” is “attempt” or “trial”, and we might say that an essayist is always saying to the reader, “Try to imagine…” The essayist, like I say, is not trying to persuade the reader that what they’re saying in each paragraph is true, but is demonstrating, in a very real sense, what the reader is able to imagine. (Right now, if I’m succeeding, I’m showing you that you can imagine an essay in a particular way.) A really good essay is often one that surprises us with our ability to imagine unfamiliar situations and complications. The working title of the Thelonious Monk’s classic “Monk’s Mood,” I’m told (on good authority), was “This Is How I Feel Now.” Norman Mailer said that the implicit message of jazz was “I feel this, and now you do too.” Replace “feel” with “think” (or “imagine”) and you’ve got the implicit message of an essay. You’re literally making the reader think what you think, see what you see. You’re walking them through your thinking, showing them a corner of mind.

Even with all this freedom and creativity in mind, an essay should be a single coherent gesture. But, unlike a paper, which adduces premises to support a conclusion, or frames an argument to suggest a set of implications, an essay is more like journey through a landscape. It begins in one place and ends in another with a sense of accomplishment that is not always neatly summarized in its “thesis”. In fact, an essay can be perfectly good even if it’s thesis wasn’t news to the reader at all or remains as mysterious at the end as it was at the beginning. (A hike will often end where it began.) Or, to use Wittgenstein’s famous metaphor, an essay may be like a ladder you climb up to a platform and then discard. It’s the new view of things, not the steps, that matters. (Though the reader is of course grateful to the craftsman for the sturdy and evenly spaced rungs.) The important thing to keep in mind as a writer is that you’re occupying your reader’s time, roughly one minute for each paragraph, and those minutes should be eventful, meaningful. You have to have a clear idea what each paragraph is for. A clear image in mind.

“A writer’s problem does not change,” said Hemingway. “He himself changes, but his problem remains the same. It is always how to write truly and, having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it.” So to write an essay you have to have something to say, you have to have a “truth” to communicate. A research paper presumes a very disciplined peer who is familiar with your theories and methods and is capable of recognizing a definite “result”. An essay is much less formal affair, but the reader is just as important. You should think of your reader as an intellectual equal precisely in the sense that they’re capable of imagining what you can imagine, of thinking what you can think, even if they don’t know it. They’re able to do this when prompted only by words. Your job as an essayist is to lay out the words you want the reader to “try on”; in the right order, they will evoke the images you want them see with their mind’s eye; and these images, in the sequence you arrange, will move your reader through a line of argument that leaves them seeing the world a little more as you do. Thus, an essay begins. Thus, it middles. And thus it ends.

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