What makes an essay good? Most of you probably think you rarely encounter essays in your daily lives; you may think you have no fixed conviction about what makes one essay better than another, but my hypothesis is that we all encounter essays every day and that we have a remarkable level of agreement on what makes an essay good. Each time we tell someone what we think and why we think it we are producing an essay, though it may be in spoken rather than written form. Probably the most accessible essays in popular culture are newspaper editorials. Most of them are models of what a good essay should be, and you have read plenty of them, or at least I hope you will during this course.
Log Cabin Method
Essays, like buildings, exist in several different forms — elaborate, simple, unusual, creative, shocking, bizarre, weird, funny, or cuckoo. There is no one way to design a good essay or building. BUT there is a simple log cabin method which every essay architect should learn to use anytime, anywhere, fast, on the spot. If you can design one of these log cabin essays, this skill will help you in all the more elaborate and creative structures you may build in the future. If you cannot write an essay according to this simple log cabin method, there is a real danger that the first 3.5 temblor to hit your essay will knock it down because, if your essay lacks these basic elements, it is not firmly constructed. Good essays, no matter how creative or elaborate, no matter how different in appearance from a log cabin, still have the basic principles of construction that the simplest log cabin has. You may not see them at first, but, in one form or another, these principles are there.
Good essays have the following three characteristics. I insist that all the essays you write in any course you take from me must also have these characteristics. (1) The essay is organized to support a clear main point, or hypothesis, which is stated in just a few words at the beginning of the essay, in the first paragraph or even in the title. (2) The main arguments supporting the hypothesis are easily identifiable. They provide the structure of the essay and may even be stated numerically at the beginning, as I am doing here. (3) Finally, a good essay anticipates possible objections and answers them. Let’s examine these three characteristics one by one.
Make Your Hypothesis Interesting!
First, an essay needs to be interesting. It needs to have personality, character, soul. Read at least three essays by the inventor of the modern essay, Michel de Montaigne. (Look him up on the web if you’ve never read his stuff.) Montaigne’s personal stamp is on every essay he writes. What he says and the way he says it are his uniquely. Style and substance are perfectly attuned to each other, and their tune is the unique personhood of Michel de Montaigne. Give your essay the unique stamp of your personhood, humor and all.
Beware of parking lots, my friends. Many of you think that, when you have finally reached (across so many freeways and all their accompanying barbarisms and indignities) a large university, you are supposed to leave your person in your car, all locked up and safe (though perhaps hot), ready for your perusal and enjoyment once again when you finally (after even more barbarisms and indignities) get back to your car. I sincerely question this assumption. I think there is a case to be made for taking your person out of the car and bringing it with you to the building in which your classroom is located and perhaps even to that classroom itself. You could keep your person cleverly concealed in your purse, wallet, or (like me) assorted canvas bags. Maybe no one will even notice you have a person or (heaven forbid — promise you won’t tell) ARE one. Really. The indignities we suffer just in trying to get TO the campus and then, especially during the first week of classes (when students