What's in a good essay?
A Nice Essay To Know
wherein I ruminate over the ingredients of a good essay

What's in a good essay?

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.)

This is more like a
spec for essays.

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.

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 you suggest,
you create.
When you describe,
you destroy.

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.

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.