Friday, September 4, 2009

Three or Four Hints About Essays (Reposted)

We received this essay two years ago, in response to a prompt that asked students to choose and describe a logo that encapsulates who they are:

Logos are symbols that are used to describe or stand for objects, places, or people. If I were to choose a logo for myself it would be a boat.

One reason I would choose my logo to be a boat is because I love to fish and most of the time when I go fishing it takes place on a boat. I try to go fishing on my boat as often as I can. I usually go out every weekend and if I have free time after school I don’t mind going in the late afternoon. My favorite fishing is waking up early and going way offshore. I like this best because the fish are bigger.

Another reason I would choose a boat as my logo is that I’d much rather drive a boat than a car. …

And so it went on — for five well-organized but tough-to-wade-through paragraphs. After reading it, we knew that this student liked his boat. But we didn’t know much else about him.

Now here's an excerpt from a different essay — one that left a different impression.

It seemed like everything exciting in the world was about to happen to you when you were ten. Even in the books I read, ten-year-olds seemed always about to embark on some new adventure. Wendy from Peter Pan was ten. So was Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, and Anne in Anne of Green Gables. Secretly I had a feeling that life would now start being like a book, full of humor and excitement. I was ten years old, and I thought I could do anything. Well, no, that’s not true. I knew I could do anything.

This student was writing in response to a prompt that asked, “What advice would you give to a ten-year-old?” She ended like this:

Keep that feeling, that confidence, as long as you can. It’s a way of looking at things that makes the whole world seem as if it’s just a little more brightly colored, a little more gentle. If you don’t know the odds, you may find yourself accomplishing anything.

Where did this essay succeed where the Boat essay fell short? Here are three ideas about these two essays, and about essays in general.

1. Voice matters as much as content. Good essays sound as though they were written by real people — ideally, smart, curious, good-hearted people.

2. Little is better than big. Small subjects close at hand are better than big subjects that are beyond any writer’s grasp. Students are tempted to write about big things, about ultimate experiences — the best thing that ever happened to me; the worst thing that ever happened to me. Almost no one can write well about this kind of thing, and students should generally steer clear.

3. Others are better than self. Not everyone shares this view. In fact we often advise students that the essay is a chance to say something about themselves — preferably something winning and definitive. But in my view this is really a tall order for any student, and in fact it’s something of a curse. It’s the rare writer and the rarer seventeen-year-old who can write self-consciously in this way. Better to write about something else, especially since we learn a lot about others by listening to them talk about something not themselves.

To illustrate this point, here’s a third essay from two years ago. The prompt read: “Describe a mistake you’ve seen some leader make.”

Head over heels, my grandfather entered the grave. He was merely ashes at that point, stored in a modest cardboard box. Before his death, he was a dedicated minister and teacher. Despite this, the pastor in charge of the internment ceremony bent down slightly and tossed Granddaddy into the hole. The priest let gravity take my grandfather three feet down when he was supposed to be ensuring a journey many miles upward.

I watched disbelief spread like a wave around the circle of family members. Their eyes fixated on the hole as my grandfather bumped and tumbled into his final resting place like a man in a barrel going over Niagara Falls.

The pastor was the leader of the ceremony, the emcee of mourning and remembrance. …

“The emcee of mourning and remembrance”: I wish I'd written those words. Wouldn’t we all want to teach this student? Wouldn’t we want to learn alongside her?

Three ideas: Voice as much as content. Little better than big. Others better than self.

And this fourth one: stories help. If you get stuck, tell us a story. Humans are suckers for stories, because our stories tell us something about ourselves, and because our stories matter.

--Stephen Farmer

(Reposted, with a few changes, from October 2008.)