The Age of the Essay: Exploring the Art of Writing

Alessio Frateily

Hatched by Alessio Frateily

Dec 17, 2023

4 min read


The Age of the Essay: Exploring the Art of Writing

In today's world, essays have become a common form of communication and expression. Whether it's in school or in professional settings, writing essays is a skill that many of us have learned and continue to use. However, there seems to be a disconnect between the essays we write in school and the ones we encounter in the real world. In this article, we will delve into what an essay truly is and how to write one effectively.

One of the most obvious differences between real essays and the essays we write in school is that real essays are not exclusively about English literature. While we often associate essays with analyzing literary works, the scope of a real essay goes beyond that. Real essays can cover a wide range of topics and disciplines, from history to science to philosophy. This diversity allows for a more expansive and holistic approach to writing.

So, how do we approach the task of writing a real essay? It starts with research. Many fields require researchers to delve into their respective domains and produce original work. However, when it comes to rhetoric or composition, the research focus becomes less clear. English literature often becomes the subject of choice for composition research, as it is closely related to the field. This approach has its drawbacks, as expertise in literature does not necessarily translate to good writing. Additionally, it limits the subject matter of writing to literature alone, rather than exploring other areas of interest.

Interestingly, this emphasis on literature in the teaching of writing can be traced back to the late 19th century. As colleges began to adopt the German model of universities, the idea of professors conducting research alongside teaching became prominent. Unfortunately, writing was somewhat overlooked in this transition. English professors inherited the responsibility of teaching writing, even if it wasn't their primary area of expertise. This led to a disconnect between the subject matter and the quality of writing being taught.

This brings us to another crucial difference between school essays and real essays. In school, we are often taught to take a position and defend it. However, in the real world, this approach can be limiting. Real essays do not necessarily take a position; instead, they aim to explore and understand a topic. This principle is rooted in the origins of essay writing, dating back to medieval universities. The disputation, a common form of discussion in those times, emphasized defending a position. While this may be necessary in legal disputes, it doesn't always lead to the truth or a deeper understanding of a subject.

In contrast, a real essay begins with a question rather than a statement. It allows for open exploration and inquiry, akin to Michel de Montaigne's approach in his book of "essais." Montaigne saw essays as attempts to figure something out, rather than definitive statements or arguments. This perspective encourages a more flexible and open-minded approach to writing, where the focus is on the process of discovery rather than defending a predetermined position.

So, how can we write effective essays that embody this spirit of exploration and inquiry? Here are three actionable tips to get you started:

  • 1. Begin with a question: Instead of starting with a thesis statement, begin your essay by posing a question that you want to explore. This sets the tone for a more open-ended and curious approach to writing.
  • 2. Embrace uncertainty: Writing an essay is not about having all the answers; it's about the journey of discovering them. Embrace the uncertainty and allow yourself to explore different perspectives and ideas. This will make your essay more engaging and thought-provoking.
  • 3. Seek feedback and engage in conversation: Share your drafts with others and invite their input. Engaging in conversations about your essay topic can help you refine your ideas and gain new insights. Embrace the opportunity to challenge and expand your thinking through dialogue.

In conclusion, the art of writing essays encompasses more than just analyzing literature or defending a position. It is about embracing the spirit of exploration and inquiry, allowing for open-ended questioning and engaging in thoughtful conversations. By approaching essays with curiosity and a willingness to learn, we can unlock the true potential of this form of communication. So, the next time you sit down to write an essay, remember to ask yourself: What am I trying to figure out? And let the journey of discovery begin.

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