The Age of the Essay: Unveiling the True Essence of Writing

Alessio Frateily

Hatched by Alessio Frateily

Aug 22, 2023

4 min read


The Age of the Essay: Unveiling the True Essence of Writing

In today's world, the term "essay" has become synonymous with academic assignments and literary analysis. However, it's important to recognize that the true nature of an essay extends far beyond these narrow confines. In this article, we will delve into what an essay truly is and explore the art of crafting one. By combining insights from "The Age of the Essay" and "Mental Models: The Best Way to Make Intelligent Decisions," we will uncover the essence of writing and provide actionable advice for aspiring essayists.

One of the most apparent distinctions between academic essays and real essays is that the latter are not solely confined to English literature. While school essays often revolve around literary analysis, true essays can encompass a wide array of subjects and topics. The notion that essays should be limited to literature is a remnant of a bygone era, where academia was predominantly focused on the study of classical works.

In the late 19th century, the teaching of writing was passed on to English professors, leading to two significant drawbacks. Firstly, expertise in literature does not necessarily translate to skill in writing. Just as an art historian does not need to be a proficient painter, an expert in literature may not possess exceptional writing abilities. Secondly, the subject matter of writing shifted towards literature, as professors naturally gravitated towards their personal interests. This shift in focus resulted in a lack of diversity in essay topics and a neglect of other fields that could benefit from the art of writing.

The influence of academia trickled down to high schools, where the emphasis on literature as the primary subject for essays became ingrained. As a result, students were compelled to imitate the style and content of their English professors, perpetuating an unidimensional approach to essay writing. This approach often required students to take a position and defend it, inhibiting their ability to explore nuanced ideas and consider alternative perspectives.

To understand the true essence of an essay, we must trace its origins back to the medieval universities. Contrary to popular belief, these institutions were not solely seminaries but rather law schools. The teaching method predominantly involved disputation, which resembled present-day thesis defenses. In this context, a thesis represented a position, and the dissertation served as the argument defending it. However, this adversarial approach to writing poses limitations, as it restricts the ability to adapt and evolve the initial question or position.

A real essay, on the other hand, embraces a more open-ended and exploratory nature. It does not begin with a predefined thesis but rather with a question. The essence of an essay lies in its ability to capture the process of trying to figure something out. It is an attempt to make sense of the world, to open doors that appear slightly ajar, and to uncover what lies beyond.

In the realm of mental models, we find a powerful tool that can enhance the essay-writing process. Mental models are representations of how things work, allowing us to simplify complexity and reason effectively. Incorporating mental models into our essays can help us organize our thoughts, present coherent arguments, and provide clarity to our readers.

Before concluding, let us explore three actionable advice to elevate your essay writing:

  • 1. Embrace Diverse Topics: Break free from the confines of traditional literary analysis and explore a wide array of subjects. Essays have the power to shed light on various aspects of the human experience, so don't shy away from delving into different fields.
  • 2. Engage in Dialogue: When seeking feedback on your essay, don't focus solely on whether the arguments are convincingly presented. Instead, encourage conversations that challenge your ideas and push you to formulate clearer explanations. The aim should be to convince intelligent readers, as their validation signifies proximity to the truth.
  • 3. Embody the Essence of an Essay: Remember that an essay is a journey of exploration, not a platform to defend fixed positions. Begin with a question, embrace curiosity, and let the process of writing help you uncover new insights and perspectives.

In conclusion, the age of the essay extends far beyond its current portrayal in academic settings. It is a dynamic and exploratory form of writing that transcends boundaries and delves into the depths of human understanding. By incorporating mental models, embracing diverse topics, engaging in dialogue, and embodying the essence of an essay, aspiring writers can embark on a transformative journey of self-discovery and intellectual growth.

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