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With the result that writing is made to seem boring and pointless. Dickens himself would be more interested in an essay about color or baseball. To answer that we have to go back almost a thousand years.
September 2004Remember the essays you had to write in high school?
Topic sentence, introductory paragraph, supporting paragraphs, conclusion.
But due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature.
And so all over the country students are writing not about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, but about symbolism in Dickens.
The sort of writing that attempts to persuade may be a valid (or at least inevitable) form, but it's historically inaccurate to call it an essay. Trying To understand what a real essay is, we have to reach back into history again, though this time not so far. One can't have quite as little foresight as a river.
To Michel de Montaigne, who in 1580 published a book of what he called "essais." He was doing something quite different from what lawyers do, and the difference is embodied in the name. I always know generally what I want to write about.
Essayer is the French verb meaning "to try" and an essai is an attempt. And so you can't begin with a thesis, because you don't have one, and may never have one. Sometimes you start with a promising question and get nowhere. Those are like experiments that get inconclusive results. You already know where you're going, and you want to go straight there, blustering through obstacles, and hand-waving your way across swampy ground. But not the specific conclusions I want to reach; from paragraph to paragraph I let the ideas take their course. Sometimes, like a river, one runs up against a wall.
An essay is something you write to try to figure something out. An essay doesn't begin with a statement, but with a question. Just as inviting people over forces you to clean up your apartment, writing something that other people will read forces you to think well. The things I've written just for myself are no good. When I run into difficulties, I find I conclude with a few vague questions and then drift off to get a cup of tea. Particularly the sort written by the staff writers of newsmagazines. One thing is certain: the question is a complex one. We didn't draw any conclusions.)The River Questions aren't enough. An essay you publish ought to tell the reader something he didn't already know. But that's not what you're trying to do in an essay. Then I do the same thing the river does: backtrack.
If all you want to do is figure things out, why do you need to write anything, though? Well, there precisely is Montaigne's great discovery. Fundamentally an essay is a train of thought-- but a cleaned-up train of thought, as dialogue is cleaned-up conversation.
Real thought, like real conversation, is full of false starts. You need to cut and fill to emphasize the central thread, like an illustrator inking over a pencil drawing. It's not something you read looking for a specific answer, and feel cheated if you don't find it. Interfaces, as Geoffrey James has said, should follow the principle of least astonishment. I was afraid of flying for a long time and could only travel vicariously.