This is perhaps firmly the age of the essay. I really don't know why, but perhaps it's because our collective attention spans have dropped to abysmal levels in this technology driven world; or perhaps this blogging thing has really caught up fast. (Blogs are essentially collections of essays (or essayettes, if you want to be finicky about it), so you shouldn't have any problem believing me when I say this is the epoch of the essay. So this is the age of blogs and essays. Or perhaps blogs are borgs, so this is really the age of the Borg Queen. Anyway.)
With so much buzz about the essay, I'm going to dissect good essays and find out what they're made of. This is more like a spec for essays, in software-speak, and you'll find as you read through this (if you read through this), that I'll keep stepping in and out of describing a good essay and describing how to write a good essay (not that I'm a good writer or anything, but hey, how do you write a great essay unless you know what a great essay is?).
When I say good essay, or great essay, I mean an enjoyable and insightful essay. At least an enjoyable essay. At the very least an informative essay. And in this write-up, I'm going to try and pick out what makes an essay great, and then, from that information, try and figure out what a great essay should have; and from there, try and write some great essays. That is roughly in increasing order of difficulty, from yeah-it-might-be-possible to yeahhh-rrright.
And throughout this essay, I totally exclude academic essays or admission essays or application or SOP style essays, which are a different species altogether; and are adequately dealt with in other places. And when I say essay, I also mean essayettes.
Rewriting the basics
If you underwent an education anything like mine, you would've been taught at high school what was pretentiously termed the anatomy of an essay. You know, the good ol' Introduction--Body--Conclusion structure. Well, it's high time somebody changed that. The real anatomy is closer to something like this, in any order:
(I hope you don't notice that this essay does nothing of this sort, but that's just incidental trivia.)
This is the first and foremost trait of a good essay: A good essay is interesting. The rest is just corollary.
The problem with the traditional structure is that it is too linear, and too rigid; and it inhibits you from thinking out of the box. The basic idea of writing an essay is to say something (hopefully interesting), or to communicate information (hopefully useful), and I posit that the above structure of an essay lends itself to that end more than the classic/conventional one.
For example, one might waste a lot of time just thinking about how the introduction should go or how the conclusion should be rather than thinking about the actual content to put down, which is what one wants anyway. The correct (or least hassle) method should have been to think of something interesting or informative to say, and then build the introduction and conclusion around it. The traditional approach has been a top-down one--fix a framework and start filling in the details; the approach I've taken is to work bottom-up--find your core content, and build a nice palace around it.
Of course, there is no need for an introduction and/or conclusion at all. The Introduction--Body--Conclusion loop is for people who can't think of any other way to write, or, more politely, a recourse to be tried when no other method works. (Oops, did that sound condescending and arrogant?). I really do think if you write about something long enough, you'll eventually stumble on a good beginning and ending. The more voluminously you write about the topic at hand, the better the beginning and ending, and the better the essay in general; for you'll have enough meat after all the cutting and editing and rewriting.
Consistency and hobgoblins
When I was very young and foolish (as opposed to just foolish now), I had the notion--the very strong conviction--that an essay should make a point - you know, say something--now I believe that it need not. As Robert Doisneau puts: when you suggest, you create; when you describe, you destroy. This (the single subject notion) was something that had been drilled into my head from Essays 101--that there should be consistency of purpose throughout an essay; that the essay should be more like a treatise on a topic. Now I realise not only that it is false; but that it is wrongly false - the maxim is correct, but is applicable to a different set of essays. When you're making a point, when your essay is a polemic or an exposition, you need to be consistent. Otherwise, it is much better off being interesting at the expense of being consistent, instead of being boringly consistent. Listen to Emerson, if you don't believe me: A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
An essay should be like a guided city tour - you know you'll find the Eiffel Tower and the River Siene in Paris, but you didn't really need a tour guide for that - you could have found it out yourself. What you want is the bank that has gieshas at the teller counter. (Hint: You won't find it in France. (Hint 2: You won't find it even in Japan, probably.))
Reading an essay (or even writing one) should be like taking a cross-country road trip with your friends. You don't really want to go to the other side of the country - you're in it for the ride.
So is there a recipe--a roadmap--to a successful (interesting) essay? Perhaps there is. Here are a few more traits that you'll find recurring in good essays.
The most difficult part is probably picking a topic that is relevant and interesting at the same time - what does one write? (Remember Writer's block? No, not the bunch of buildings, the concept.) The essay can probably be made interesting by brilliant writing, but if the topic isn't relevant, then, alas, all is lost. So I guess picking a topic is a grey area, as it depends on who you're writing the essay for. An essay on Special clitic placement in the South Slavic languages and on phonological reordering (with a special treatment of Prosodic Inversion) might be darned interesting to a (possibly nutty) linguist, but to the remaining 99.99999% of the human population, it ain't gonna be too hot.
A good essay is neither too long, nor too short.
Ah, length--long enough, but not inordinately long--and short, but not shorter. The amount of content should determine length. If you can say something in a sentence and be done with it, stop with a sentence. If you need a hundred pages, and if you can sustain interest in the reader for the entire length of a hundred pages, take a hundred pages. It should be no longer or shorter that it needs to be. (If you're the kind that doesn't like vague descriptions of that sort, then your essay should be exactly 103 words.)
A good essay has that deft personal touch.
A good essay has the writer's personality imprinted on to it. I think it shows more `user empathy' to be personal in a narrative - the mood very much like you meet an old friend and exchange stories - sometimes funny, sometimes nostaligic and sometimes piquant. But always, always enjoyable.
A good essay has interesting things to say, or interesting ways of saying otherwise uninteresting things.
Which is, well, easier said than done. Because interesting means different things to different people (notice how quickly the word has turned into a nebulous cloud of vague descriptions).
So, what's interesting? Well, surprises are interesting, funny analogies are interesting, a controversial stand on a controversial topic is interesting, going against conventional wisdom is interesting, well-directed humour is interesting, and an interesting topic is also, uh, interesting. The closest algorithm you can probably get is from Paul Graham, who said - be like the river - there is a definite objective in mind - the way into the sea - but how you get there is not very important, as long as you get there. So, flowing like the river and choosing the most interesting point at every point can lead to an interesting essay. Interesting also means surprising, unexpected, or downright brilliant.
A good essay is eclectic.
From all the works of literature I have read (which is not much, I agree, but still), the ones that have appealed the most to me are the ones that have drawn their illustrations from diverse sources. Politics, history, anthropology, physics, hacking, business management, philosophy, evolutionary biology, art, bicycle commuting, astrophysics, hamburgers (well, maybe not hamburgers)--anything at all, in fact, the wierder the source, the more interesting the essay.
A good essay is fluent and expressive.
There are two kinds of essays with respect to the style of language in them. The rhetorical-literary essay (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ayn Rand, Francis Bacon), and the easy-conversational essay (Douglas Adams, Paul Graham).
Both forms are equally effective, but a good essay uses a style that matches it's content. When writing about Romanticism or Philosophy or Truth or any of the larger-than-life-and-the-universe concepts that thinkers and philosophers grapple with, a conversational style doesn't probably pack the requisite punch. But when you're writing about high school antics, or playing with pets, or hacking, a Latinesque and overtly flowery style will sound odd and ill-placed.
A good essay is well edited.
And probably rewritten a lot of times. Ayn Rand used to write 2-3 times as much as the amount that was finally published (and she is one heck of a writer). Almost every writer I've heard of edits and rewrites heavily. It goes with the territory. (Yes, there are exceptions. Like Arundhati Roy. But they are exceptions, and are, by definition, not normal.)
A good essay puts things into perspective.
A good essay scouts around for anomalies, and frequently questions the fundamental doctrine of a theory, precept, philosophy or movement; if only for a change of perspective.
(In fact, it is interesting to take up a stance and then try to defend the exact opposite. For example, I didn't like History one bit when I was in school. In fact, I hated it. It absolutely, positively bored me to death. So, I recently challenged myself to defend why I didn't like history. I challenged myself to take up an interest in history. Turns out I didn't hate it that badly, something I would have bet my life against. Now that I think of it, I realise why it was that it bored me. I missed the bigger picture. I totally didn't get the idea that, when World War II was happening, and Hitler was murdering people by the millions - those were real people. I didn't see it as a movie, I saw it as a statistic. I just didn't, as they say, GET IT. I was too bogged down by the gazillion dates and names that I didn't realize the dates and names belonged to real people and real events that happened in the real world. Now that I am that much the wiser, I've taken a liking to history. World War II is suddenly much more interesting. The Normandy Invasion springs to life, the dates and the names stick much better (or just disappear in the background), and Toynbee finally finds space in my bookshelf.)
In short, a good essay makes you put down the girl who you should have left at the river.
Writing a good essay
Writing a good essay is simpler to describe. Just make sure you put all the traits of a great essay into the essay you're writing. (For a better answer, perhaps you should ask Paul Graham, he has a breath-taking (literally) algorithm for writing an essay; and it contains some excellent advice that you'd be better off keeping in mind.)
Writing is exploration - you are armed with only the flashlight of your keyboard, the terrain is uncharted and the ships have set sail. You are alone. Pick up the backpack, the GPS and the Survival Kit; grit your teeth, and start hikin'. It's a long walk.
This essay didn't come out quite as well as I'd like it to have. But I guess it's just part of the package. Every aspiring writer should probably drive through these phases, only that I seem to be driving around in circles. Ah, well.