Writing an Essay

by Krishna on June 23, 2007

Many of us have had experiences with writing essays during our English language classes and exams, and later during admission or qualification tests like the GMAT. In those situations, the topic is usually provided for us and then we have to write the essay within a certain period of time. Typically, one prepares a formula for managing the test and, with practice, the formula has a high percentage of success.

It is a little different writing an essay outside an academic situation. First, why write an essay in the first place? After all, there are definitely many other forms of communication — conversations, emails, etc. The reason why essays are still written is that the essay form provides a way to analyze a particular situation in a structured way. You can consider the subject in depth, allowing you to make informed judgments.

For example, if I just wanted to express my opinion about the best Presidential candidate, I could simply write a 1‑line email. But if I want to analyze why the candidate is the best among all candidates by comparing their merits or demerits, the essay provides a much better avenue. Another example: If a manager faces an organizational problem, writing a detailed article helps in understanding the issue better by evaluating various alternatives.

Another challenge with writing essays is finding the right subject to talk about. The truth is that getting ideas is not the problem. Every day is filled with different happenings, each of which can serve as the inspiration for another article. However, every idea is not born equal. Some topics may be too simple to lend themselves to a detailed analysis. Others may be too complex that even a book may not do them proper justice. Some topics, while interesting, may not fit into the general category of things you want to write about.

All said and done, you will always have something to write about. The problem then becomes: when do you start writing? If you are just doing reporting of an event or happening, it is easy to dish up a few sentences. However, when you are doing analysis, it helps to wait until you can see the event in proper perspective. For example, if a company launches a new product, the event will be surrounded by marketing hype, which can confuse the message. You can do a better analysis by waiting until the noise abates and you are less influenced by the news reporters and public relations personnel.

Unlike a class room, writing an essay is not a time-bound activity. If you wish, you can write an essay in an hour and publish it immediately. Or you can keep writing for days and never get to completion. Most articles fall somewhere between the two extremes. A reasonably good essay takes several hours from start to completion. It is difficult to finish most essays in one sitting.

Here is how a typical essay is written: You start putting together a few sentences based on an idea and then mysteriously develop writer's block. You take a break, find your rhythm again and write some more. You cross out a few things you had previously written and rewrite other sentences. Fix some scattered grammar mistakes. Clarify something using a different word. You get tired, go to sleep. Wake up and realize that your whole approach was wrong and rewrite it from scratch. So on until you “finish” it. You show it to someone. They don’t understand what you are talking about. Back to Square One!

There is also another less-understood problem: There is an elusive perfect size for an essay based on the subject it is discussing. Sometimes when you re-read your article after taking a break, you may find that removing 25% of the article makes no difference to the point you are trying to make. However, at other times, you realize that you must make a reference to a particular person or incident. Otherwise the article feels hollow.

Taking breaks can serve in thinking about the length and other aspects of the article. Ideas, metaphors and examples are the key components of an essay. What do you include? How do you preserve the core theme and idea in your article while considering different nuances and contradictions? What do you leave out and how do you decide? This sort of thinking is best done away from your writing desk or computer keyboard.

Don’t misinterpret breaks as interruptions. By breaks, I mean a voluntary decision on your part to stop writing and do something else. An interruption is when someone or something breaks your flow of thought. You need solitude and full attention to writing a good essay. Interruptions can disrupt creativity just when you are doing your best work. Find a time and place where you can do long stretches of uninterrupted work. Some people do their best creative work when others are asleep because that is when they have taken care of other chores and distractions. Only tiredness can stop them from going on.

I believe that logical flow is more important than structure and form. But you can attract more people to your essays through judicious use of formatting and graphics. The ability to scan an article is a big concern. Using headings, bold text, smaller paragraphs, lists, etc. can make it easier for more people to read the essay and understand its meaning. But don’t do it artificially. For example, using a bulleted list has the potential to muddy an article’s primary message by making several different points.

Finally, how do you end an essay? Sometimes, you can write an article to build up to a great logical conclusion. But usually what happens is that you have been talking about the conclusion for the last several paragraphs and explaining it with examples. You run out of steam and you settle for a tame ending like a summary paragraph. In my experience, that is the rule in most articles, not the exception. Readers can feel short-changed, but if the rest of your article was good, they will probably forgive you.

The main thing about an essay is that there are no rules, except that you write it for yourself. You should be satisfied that you gave the essay your best shot and you analyzed the subject the best you could. Intellectual honesty is critical. Be sincere in examining all sides of the situation. At the same time, leave things out that have nothing to do with the subject.

In short, the author in you writes the essay for the reader in you. The former should make the best effort to keep the latter contented.

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