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Essay Writing Basics: Beginning Basics
Students, and people who remember being students, look with dread upon one of the most commonly encountered assignments in all of schooling: essay writing. (How common they are shows up in how many people write about them.) Those forced into writing them in English classes, literature classes, and elsewhere cringe at the thought of trying to put words on paper in a coherent order, knowing that they will be judged for their efforts and fearing that they will be found lacking. All too often, it is true.
It does not have to be, however. Writing essays is not so difficult as people expect it to be--if a few things are kept in mind. Some of those things are what people know to expect; others are not so frequently discussed. All of them, however, offer insight into what an essay ought to do, and that leads to what a writer ought to do to set up an essay.
Looking at the history of a thing helps to offer understanding of that thing. Essays are no different.
The word "essay," according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is in its earliest definition a verb meaning "to test" or "to try" (in the senses both of attempting and of judging). The noun form of the word has a number of meanings, mostly of tests or trials. The more openly accessible Dictionary.com notes much the same thing of "essay," although its focus is more on the writing than the deed. In both cases, and doubtlessly in others, the writing definition is only one of the meanings of "essay," and it is not entirely distinct from the others; words can, after all, have multiple meanings at the same time, as puns point out. Looking at the history of the word, then, reveals that essays are not just writing according to a topic, but they are writing to test out an idea about the topic.
The idea of writing to test out an idea goes a long way back. The remarks that the form extends back into the Classical period, although it was not named as such until Montaigne and Bacon in the late 1500s. It was fairly popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with major examples in English coming from Defoe's Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary TheoryReview, Addison and Steele in The Tatler and The Spectator, Johnson, and Twain. It continues on in academic books and journals, many sermons, newspaper pieces such as those in the New York Times Opinion/Editorial section. And it does persist in classroom assignments (more about those another time), standardized tests (those, too), scholarship applications, and a number of other places.
Writing essays well, then, remains important.
One of the underpinnings of good essay writing is the notion that not all of what gets written needs to be put forward.
A number of people have trouble with the idea. Some think that good writing comes always and only from inspired efforts. They look at any revision more substantial than fixing a few typos as an indication of failure. Others think that once a piece of writing is begun, it must be continued. Writing on paper or in pixels on a screen for them is the same as writing in metal or stone; it is fixed and unalterable. Still others believe that their words are representations of who they are, and that to allow them to be altered is to allow an alteration of their identities.
There are reasons behind such ideas. One of them is that the essays read are finished products; only the final results appear where others can see them. This is much like the performance of musicians or athletes. Only the album or concert or game is seen, while the hours and years of training and practice are mentioned briefly, if at all. Because the effort spent to make the performance possible is hidden, it becomes easy to think that it does not happen. That does not mean it does not, though. Many things, after all, happen that are not seen, and the world would work less well than it does did they not. The same is true of essays.
Another reason people have ideas that go against the principle that not all of what gets written needs to be put forward is that they are trained to them. Writing in classes and on standardized tests throughout school (even into the college classroom) is a one-off affair. There is not enough time in such circumstances (faced by a great many people over quite a few years) to develop an idea, to test it and see if it deserves to be advanced, and so whatever hits the page has to be good enough. It is a flawed idea, even if it is one that has a lot of political and ideological support, and while it is understandable that people will go along with what they have been trained for years to do, it is not necessarily right. Many notions that were once widely held have been proven to be wrong (indeed, it is at the heart of why the ad populum fallacy is fallacious).
Still another is that essays, as a form of writing, are venues for self-expression--and that self-expression cannot be wrong. The clothes a person owns and wears are also self-expressive, yet people pick and choose what to buy and what to wear on a given day--that is, they think over, try out, and sometimes reject how they will express themselves to the world. The way in which they look for a single day--sometimes far less than that--is worth considering and reconsidering, so surely, an essay, which remains for more than just a day, is also worth working over to be its best and represent its writer as well as can be done.
Essays, again, are trials. They advance ideas, testing them to see if they are worth supporting. Sometimes, this means that the methods by which the ideas are approached need to be re-thought. Victory in a battle does not always come from the first assault, and it is not always clear that a given path will lead to the desired destination. In neither case does an initial setback prompt withdrawal; another assault is tried, or the traveler backtracks to try a different road. Similarly, in drafting essays, if a given line of argument does not lead to the idea being tested, another may be tried--and there is nothing wrong with doing so.
Sometimes also, the idea being tested is one that is untenable. Not every experiment produces a successful result, but the next one may. And sometimes it takes a number of tries before something comes up that is exactly what is needed (WD-40 is one major example). It is admittedly an annoyance to go through the trouble of trying to put something together only to have it not do what it needs to do. But it is a valuable thing, for while it is true that what needs to be done has to be done, it is also necessary to know what to avoid so as to not make the same mistake or a similar mistake in the future.
Done sincerely, the essay will produce an idea or an approach to an idea that has never before been put forth. No two people proceed from exactly the same set of circumstances. Family contexts differ. Even twins have different siblings, and most people are not so similar as twins. Educational contexts differ. People attend different classes, and even those in the same classes may receive different assignments--and they certainly study differently. Social contexts differ. A person who grows up in the Texas Hill Country is surrounded by different people and beliefs than a person who grows up in Louisiana Cajun Country; and one who grows up in Brooklyn, Iowa, will not hear the same things as one who grows up in Brooklyn, New York.
Which ideas are pursued depends in large part on what ideas can be recognized, and the unique circumstances of each person determine what that person can recognize. The ideas a person pursues, then, will be unique--if the writer allows for it (people often think they have to write form a perspective other than their own, which accounts for much difficulty in essay writing as well as much bad essay writing). Thoroughly and sincerely done, the essay will advance human knowledge and understanding, enriching all--and that makes the task of essay writing, so often viewed as a waste of time or a problem to be gotten around with all due haste, not easier, but certainly more worth doing.
Somewhat Related Notes
It is true, always and in all circumstances, that those who use outside information have to account for it; students are told, and correctly, that if they have to look up a thing, they have to cite it. There are a variety of citation styles that can be used, some more rigid and formal than others. In this hub and those that follow from it, informal citation is used; sources are referenced in sentences, and links are provided where applicable and appropriate, but such things as MLA-style parenthetical or Chicago-style footnote citation are not used.
Also, there may be some questioning of the use of Wikipedia in this hub. More scholarly sources can be found, but they are not always openly accessible; recommendations for such sources, vetted and accessible, are welcome in comments or in email.
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