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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.Around 1100, Europe at last began to catch its breath after centuries of chaos, and once they had the luxury of curiosity they rediscovered what we call "the classics." The effect was rather as if we were visited by beings from another solar system.
In that case, in the course of the conversation I'll be forced to come up a with a clearer explanation, which I can just incorporate in the essay. For the essayist this translates to: flow interesting.
More often than not I have to change what I was saying as well. As the reader gets smarter, convincing and true become identical, so if I can convince smart readers I must be near the truth. The path it has discovered is the most economical route to the sea. Of all the places to go next, choose the most interesting.
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.September 2004Remember the essays you had to write in high school?Topic sentence, introductory paragraph, supporting paragraphs, conclusion. And after the lecture the most common form of discussion was the disputation.This is at least nominally preserved in our present-day thesis defense: most people treat the words thesis and dissertation as interchangeable, but originally, at least, a thesis was a position one took and the dissertation was the argument by which one defended it.This idea (along with the Ph D, the department, and indeed the whole concept of the modern university) was imported from Germany in the late 19th century. It's no wonder if this seems to the student a pointless exercise, because we're now three steps removed from real work: the students are imitating English professors, who are imitating classical scholars, who are merely the inheritors of a tradition growing out of what was, 700 years ago, fascinating and urgently needed work.Beginning at Johns Hopkins in 1876, the new model spread rapidly. No Defense The other big difference between a real essay and the things they make you write in school is that a real essay doesn't take a position and then defend it.The conclusion being, say, that Ahab in Moby Dick was a Christ-like figure. So I'm going to try to give the other side of the story: what an essay really is, and how you write one. Mods The most obvious difference between real essays and the things one has to write in school is that real essays are not exclusively about English literature.Certainly schools should teach students how to write.But Harvard didn't have a professor of English literature until 1876, and Oxford not till 1885. And so in the late 19th century the teaching of writing was inherited by English professors.(Oxford had a chair of Chinese before it had one of English.) What tipped the scales, at least in the US, seems to have been the idea that professors should do research as well as teach. The professors who taught math could be required to do original math, the professors who taught history could be required to write scholarly articles about history, but what about the professors who taught rhetoric or composition? This had two drawbacks: (a) an expert on literature need not himself be a good writer, any more than an art historian has to be a good painter, and (b) the subject of writing now tends to be literature, since that's what the professor is interested in. The seeds of our miserable high school experiences were sown in 1892, when the National Education Association "formally recommended that literature and composition be unified in the high school course."  The 'riting component of the 3 Rs then morphed into English, with the bizarre consequence that high school students now had to write about English literature-- to write, without even realizing it, imitations of whatever English professors had been publishing in their journals a few decades before.