As E. B. White said, "good writing is rewriting." I didn't
realize this when I was in school. In writing, as in math and
science, they only show you the finished product.
You don't see all the false starts. This gives students a
misleading view of how things get made.
Part of the reason it happens is that writers don't want
people to see their mistakes. But I'm willing to let people
see an early draft if it will show how much you have
to rewrite to beat an essay into shape.
Below is the oldest version I can find of
The Age of the Essay
(probably the second or third day), with
text that ultimately survived in
red and text that later
got deleted in gray.
There seem to be several categories of cuts: things I got wrong,
things that seem like bragging, flames,
digressions, stretches of awkward prose, and unnecessary words.
I discarded more from the beginning. That's
not surprising; it takes a while to hit your stride. There
are more digressions at the start, because I'm not sure where
The amount of cutting is about average. I probably write
three to four words for every one that appears in the final
version of an essay.
(Before anyone gets mad at me for opinions expressed here, remember
that anything you see here that's not in the final version is obviously
something I chose not to publish, often because I disagree
Recently a friend said that what he liked about
my essays was that they weren't written the way
we'd been taught to write essays in school. You
remember: topic sentence, introductory paragraph,
supporting paragraphs, conclusion. It hadn't
occurred to me till then that those horrible things
we had to write in school were even connected to
what I was doing now. But sure enough, I thought,
they did call them "essays," didn't they?
Well, they're not. Those things you have to write
in school are not only not essays, they're one of the
most pointless of all the pointless hoops you have
to jump through in school. And I worry that they
not only teach students the wrong things about writing,
but put them off writing entirely.
So I'm going to give the other side of the story: what
an essay really is, and how you write one. Or at least,
how I write one. Students be forewarned: if you actually write
the kind of essay I describe, you'll probably get bad
grades. But knowing how it's really done should
at least help you to understand the feeling of futility
you have when you're writing the things they tell you to.
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.
It's a fine thing for schools to
teach students how to
write. But for some bizarre reason (actually, a very specific bizarre
reason that I'll explain in a moment),
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.
results. Only a few people really
symbolism in Dickens. The teacher doesn't.
The students don't. Most of the people who've had to write PhD
disserations about Dickens don't. And certainly
Dickens himself would be more interested in an essay
about color or baseball.
How did things get this way? To answer that we have to go back
almost a thousand years. Between about 500 and 1000, life was
not very good in Europe. The term "dark ages" is presently
out of fashion as too judgemental (the period wasn't dark;
it was just different), but if this label didn't already
exist, it would seem an inspired metaphor. What little
original thought there was took place in lulls between
constant wars and had something of the character of
the thoughts of parents with a new baby.
The most amusing thing written during this
period, Liudprand of Cremona's Embassy to Constantinople, is,
I suspect, mostly inadvertantly so.
Around 1000 Europe began to catch its breath.
And once they
had the luxury of curiosity, one of the first things they discovered
was what we call "the classics."
Imagine if we were visited
by aliens. If they could even get here they'd presumably know a
few things we don't. Immediately Alien Studies would become
the most dynamic field of scholarship: instead of painstakingly
discovering things for ourselves, we could simply suck up
everything they'd discovered. So it was in Europe in 1200.
When classical texts began to circulate in Europe, they contained
not just new answers, but new questions. (If anyone proved
a theorem in christian Europe before 1200, for example, there
is no record of it.)
For a couple centuries, some of the most important work
being done was intellectual archaelogy. Those were also
the centuries during which schools were first established.
And since reading ancient texts was the essence of what
scholars did then, it became the basis of the curriculum.
By 1700, someone who wanted to learn about
physics didn't need to start by mastering Greek in order to read Aristotle. But schools
change slower than scholarship: the study of
had such prestige that it remained the backbone of
until the late 19th century. By then it was merely a tradition.
It did serve some purposes: reading a foreign language was difficult,
and thus taught discipline, or at least, kept students busy;
it introduced students to
cultures quite different from their own; and its very uselessness
made it function (like white gloves) as a social bulwark.
But it certainly wasn't
true, and hadn't been true for centuries, that students were
serving apprenticeships in the hottest area of scholarship.
Classical scholarship had also changed. In the early era, philology
actually mattered. The texts that filtered into Europe were
all corrupted to some degree by the errors of translators and
copyists. Scholars had to figure out what Aristotle said
before they could figure out what he meant. But by the modern
era such questions were answered as well as they were ever
going to be. And so the study of ancient texts became less
about ancientness and more about texts.
The time was then ripe for the question: if the study of
ancient texts is a valid field for scholarship, why not modern
texts? The answer, of course, is that the raison d'etre
of classical scholarship was a kind of intellectual archaelogy that
does not need to be done in the case of contemporary authors.
But for obvious reasons no one wanted to give that answer.
The archaeological work being mostly done, it implied that
the people studying the classics were, if not wasting their
time, at least working on problems of minor importance.
And so began the study of modern literature. There was some
initial resistance, but it didn't last long.
reagent in the growth of university departments is what
parents will let undergraduates study. If parents will let
their children major in x, the rest follows straightforwardly.
There will be jobs teaching x, and professors to fill them.
The professors will establish scholarly journals and publish
one another's papers. Universities with x departments will
subscribe to the journals. Graduate students who want jobs
as professors of x will write dissertations about it. It may
take a good long while for the more prestigious universities
to cave in and establish departments in cheesier xes, but
at the other end of the scale there are so many universities
competing to attract students that the mere establishment of
a discipline requires little more than the desire to do it.
High schools imitate universities.
And so once university
English departments were established in the late nineteenth century,
the 'riting component of the 3 Rs
was 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. 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.
Perhaps high schools should drop English and just teach writing.
The valuable part of English classes is learning to write, and
that could be taught better by itself. Students learn better
when they're interested in what they're doing, and it's hard
to imagine a topic less interesting than symbolism in Dickens.
Most of the people who write about that sort of thing professionally
are not really interested in it. (Though indeed, it's been a
while since they were writing about symbolism; now they're
writing about gender.)
I have no illusions about how eagerly this suggestion will
be adopted. Public schools probably couldn't stop teaching
English even if they wanted to; they're probably required to by
law. But here's a related suggestion that goes with the grain
instead of against it: that universities establish a
writing major. Many of the students who now major in English
would major in writing if they could, and most would
be better off.
It will be argued that it is a good thing for students to be
exposed to their literary heritage. Certainly. But is that
more important than that they learn to write well? And are
English classes even the place to do it? After all,
the average public high school student gets zero exposure to
his artistic heritage. No disaster results.
The people who are interested in art learn about it for
themselves, and those who aren't don't. I find that American
adults are no better or worse informed about literature than
art, despite the fact that they spent years studying literature
in high school and no time at all studying art. Which presumably
means that what they're taught in school is rounding error
compared to what they pick up on their own.
Indeed, English classes may even be harmful. In my case they
were effectively aversion therapy. Want to make someone dislike
a book? Force him to read it and write an essay about it.
And make the topic so intellectually bogus that you
could not, if asked, explain why one ought to write about it.
I love to read more than anything, but by the end of high school
I never read the books we were assigned. I was so disgusted with
what we were doing that it became a point of honor
with me to write nonsense at least as good at the other students'
without having more than glanced over the book to learn the names
of the characters and a few random events in it.
I hoped this might be fixed in college, but I found the same
problem there. It was not the teachers. It was English.
We were supposed to read novels and write essays about them.
About what, and why? That no one seemed to be able to explain.
Eventually by trial and error I found that what the teacher
wanted us to do was pretend that the story had really taken
place, and to analyze based on what the characters said and did (the
subtler clues, the better) what their motives must have been.
One got extra credit for motives having to do with class,
as I suspect one must now for those involving gender and
sexuality. I learned how to churn out such stuff well enough
to get an A, but I never took another English class.
And the books we did these disgusting things to, like those
we mishandled in high school, I find still have black marks
against them in my mind. The one saving grace was that
English courses tend to favor pompous, dull writers like
Henry James, who deserve black marks against their names anyway.
One of the principles the IRS uses in deciding whether to
allow deductions is that, if something is fun, it isn't work.
Fields that are intellectually unsure of themselves rely on
a similar principle. Reading P.G. Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh or
Raymond Chandler is too obviously pleasing to seem like
serious work, as reading Shakespeare would have been before
English evolved enough to make it an effort to understand him. [sh]
And so good writers (just you wait and see who's still in
print in 300 years) are less likely to have readers turned
against them by clumsy, self-appointed tour guides.
The other big difference between a real essay and the
they make you write in school is that a real essay doesn't
take a position and then defend it. That principle,
like the idea that we ought to be writing about literature,
turns out to be another intellectual hangover of long
forgotten origins. It's often mistakenly believed that
medieval universities were mostly seminaries. In fact they
were more law schools. And at least in our tradition
lawyers are advocates: they are
trained to be able to
either side of an argument and make as good a case for it
as they can.
Whether or not this is a good idea (in the case of prosecutors,
it probably isn't), it tended to pervade
the atmosphere of
early universities. After the lecture the most common form
of discussion was the disputation. This idea
is at least
nominally preserved in our present-day thesis defense-- indeed,
in the very word thesis. Most people treat the words
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.
I'm not complaining that we blur these two words together.
As far as I'm concerned, the sooner we lose the original
sense of the word thesis, the better. For many, perhaps most,
graduate students, it is stuffing a square peg into a round
hole to try to recast one's work as a single thesis. And
as for the disputation, that seems clearly a net lose.
Arguing two sides of a case may be a necessary evil in a
legal dispute, but it's not the best way to get at the truth,
as I think lawyers would be the first to admit.
And yet this principle is built into the very structure of
they teach you to write in high school. The topic
sentence is your thesis, chosen in advance, the supporting
paragraphs the blows you strike in the conflict, and the
conclusion--- uh, what it the conclusion? I was never sure
about that in high school. If your thesis was well expressed,
what need was there to restate it? In theory it seemed that
the conclusion of a really good essay ought not to need to
say any more than QED.
But when you understand the origins
of this sort of "essay", you can see where the
conclusion comes from. It's the concluding remarks to the
What other alternative is there? To answer that
we have to
reach back into history again, though this time not so far.
To Michel de Montaigne, inventor of the essay.
doing something quite different from what a
the difference is embodied in the name. Essayer is the French
verb meaning "to try" (the cousin of our word assay),
and an "essai" is an effort.
An essay is something you
write in order
to figure something out.
Figure out what? You don't know yet. And so you can't begin with a
thesis, because you don't have one, and may never have
one. An essay doesn't begin with a statement, but with a
question. In a real essay, you don't take a position and
defend it. You see a door that's ajar, and you open it and
walk in to see what's inside.
If all you want to do is figure things out, why do you need
to write anything, though? Why not just sit and think? Well,
there precisely is Montaigne's great discovery. Expressing
ideas helps to form them. Indeed, helps is far too weak a
of what ends up in my essays was stuff
thought of when I sat down to write them. That's why I
So there's another difference between essays and
you have to write in school. In school
you are, in theory,
explaining yourself to someone else. In the best case---if
you're really organized---you're just writing it down.
In a real essay you're writing for yourself. You're
thinking out loud.
But not quite. Just as inviting people over forces you to
clean up your apartment, writing something that you know
other people will read forces you to think well. So it
does matter to have an audience. The things I've written
just for myself are no good. Indeed, they're bad in
a particular way:
they tend to peter out. When I run into
difficulties, I notice that I
tend to conclude with a few vague
questions and then drift off to get a cup of tea.
This seems a common problem.
It's practically the standard
ending in blog entries--- with the addition of a "heh" or an
emoticon, prompted by the all too accurate sense that
something is missing.
And indeed, a lot of
published essays peter out in this
Particularly the sort written by the staff writers of newsmagazines. Outside writers tend to supply
editorials of the defend-a-position variety, which
make a beeline toward a rousing (and
foreordained) conclusion. But the staff writers feel
obliged to write something more
balanced, which in
practice ends up meaning blurry.
writing for a popular magazine, they start with the
most radioactively controversial questions, from which
(because they're writing for a popular magazine)
they then proceed to recoil from
Gay marriage, for or
against? This group says one thing. That group says
another. One thing is certain: the question is a
complex one. (But don't get mad at us. We didn't
draw any conclusions.)
Questions aren't enough. An essay has to come up with answers.
They don't always, of course. Sometimes you start with a
promising question and get nowhere. But those you don't
publish. Those are like experiments that get inconclusive
results. Something you publish ought to tell the reader
something he didn't already know.
But what you tell him doesn't matter, so long as
it's interesting. I'm sometimes accused of meandering.
In defend-a-position writing that would be a flaw.
There you're not concerned with truth. 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 that's not what
you're trying to do in an essay. An essay is supposed to
be a search for truth. It would be suspicious if it didn't
The Meander is a river in Asia Minor (aka
As you might expect, it winds all over the place.
But does it
do this out of frivolity? Quite the opposite.
Like all rivers, it's rigorously following the laws of physics.
The path it has discovered,
winding as it is, represents
the most economical route to the sea.
The river's algorithm is simple. At each step, flow down.
For the essayist this translates to: flow interesting.
Of all the places to go next, choose
I'm pushing this metaphor a bit. An essayist
quite as little foresight as a river. In fact what you do
(or what I do) is somewhere between a river and a roman
road-builder. I have a general idea of the direction
I want to go in, and
I choose the next topic with that in mind. This essay is
about writing, so I do occasionally yank it back in that
direction, but it is not all the sort of essay I
thought I was going to write about writing.
Note too that hill-climbing (which is what this algorithm is
called) can get you in trouble.
like a river,
run up against a blank wall. What
I do then is just
what the river does: backtrack.
At one point in this essay
I found that after following a certain thread I ran out
of ideas. I had to go back n
paragraphs and start over
in another direction. For illustrative purposes I've left
the abandoned branch as a footnote.
Err on the side of the river. An essay is not a reference
work. It's not something you read looking for a specific
answer, and feel cheated if you don't find it. I'd much
rather read an essay that went off in an unexpected but
interesting direction than one that plodded dutifully along
a prescribed course.
So what's interesting? For me, interesting means surprise.
Design, as Matz
has said, should follow the principle of
A button that looks like it will make a
machine stop should make it stop, not speed up. Essays
should do the opposite. Essays should aim for maximum
I was afraid of flying for a long time and could only travel
vicariously. When friends came back from faraway places,
it wasn't just out of politeness that I asked them about
I really wanted to know. And I found that
the best way to get information out of them was to ask
what surprised them. How was the place different from what
they expected? This is an extremely useful question.
You can ask it of even
the most unobservant people, and it will
extract information they didn't even know they were
Indeed, you can ask it in real time. Now when I go somewhere
new, I make a note of what surprises me about it. Sometimes I
even make a conscious effort to visualize the place beforehand,
so I'll have a detailed image to diff with reality.
Surprises are facts
you didn't already
more than that. They're facts
that contradict things you
thought you knew. And so they're the most valuable sort of
fact you can get. They're like a food that's not merely
healthy, but counteracts the unhealthy effects of things
you've already eaten.
How do you find surprises? Well, therein lies half
the work of essay writing. (The other half is expressing
yourself well.) You can at least
use yourself as a
proxy for the reader. You should only write about things
you've thought about a lot. And anything you come across
that surprises you, who've thought about the topic a lot,
will probably surprise most readers.
For example, in a recent essay I pointed out that because
you can only judge computer programmers by working with
them, no one knows in programming who the heroes should
didn't realize this when I started writing
essay, and even now I find it kind of weird. That's
what you're looking for.
So if you want to write essays, you need two ingredients:
a few topics that you think about a lot, and you
need some ability to ferret out the unexpected.
What should you think about? My guess is that it
doesn't matter. Almost everything is
interesting if you get deeply
enough into it. The one possible exception
like working in fast food, which
have deliberately had all
the variation sucked out of them.
In retrospect, was there
anything interesting about working in Baskin-Robbins?
Well, it was interesting to notice
how important color was
to the customers. Kids a certain age would point into
the case and say that they wanted yellow. Did they want
French Vanilla or Lemon? They would just look at you
blankly. They wanted yellow. And then there was the
mystery of why the perennial favorite Pralines n' Cream
was so appealing. I'm inclined now to
think it was the salt.
And the mystery of why Passion Fruit tasted so disgusting.
People would order it because of the name, and were always
disappointed. It should have been called In-sink-erator
And there was
the difference in the way fathers and
mothers bought ice cream for their kids.
Fathers tended to
adopt the attitude of
benevolent kings bestowing largesse,
and mothers that of
giving in to
pressure against their better judgement.
So, yes, there does seem to be material, even in
What about the other half, ferreting out the unexpected?
That may require some natural ability. I've noticed for
a long time that I'm pathologically observant. ....
[That was as far as I'd gotten at the time.]
[sh] In Shakespeare's own time, serious writing meant theological
discourses, not the bawdy plays acted over on the other
side of the river among the bear gardens and whorehouses.
The other extreme, the work that seems formidable from the moment
it's created (indeed, is deliberately intended to be)
is represented by Milton. Like the Aeneid, Paradise Lost is a
rock imitating a butterfly that happened to get fossilized.
Even Samuel Johnson seems to have balked at this, on the one
hand paying Milton the compliment of an extensive biography,
and on the other writing of Paradise Lost that "none who read it
ever wished it longer."