Essays convey thoughts, meanings, explanations, opinions, and so much more. A good essay should make you think; an excellent essay should make your mind soar. And it’s essays I want to talk to you about today.
I’m proud to have been named as Essays Editor for Thanet Writers, and I want to continue the tradition of essay writing that it has promoted thus far. The group has far evolved beyond its original formation by a small group of committed individuals as—wait for it—a group for Thanet writers to get together and share ideas every Thursday evening.
Its fundamental mission is still that, of course, but Thanet Writers now does that in a multiple of different ways; through the writers group, regular poetry meetings, weekly video and media features, a thriving website, its first anthology and many more planned, and funding to help paying artists for their work. The payments might not be stratospheric, but it’s a powerful symbol; that writers deserve to be paid, and here is our starting point.
The website hosts a lot of work—short stories, poetry, book reviews, and essays—and there’s something for everyone. All the editors are kept busy with submissions, and it’s exciting to be a part of that process. You’ll really need to take some time to navigate around the site to get a feel for what’s available, but rest assured, you’ll find it fascinating.
But let’s go back to essays. I love them; they can offer a personal, subjective view of a particular topic, and as controversial or as mainstream as the author likes. They’re often expository, but can also include an overarching narrative and—sometimes—facts and an exploration of the other side of the argument…and there’s always another point of view to consider.
An effective essay can be on literary criticism, political manifesto, a learned treatise, observations of daily life, commentary on specific issues that interest the writer, or memories that link into a specific theme. In short, the content of an essay varies dramatically, so get rid of all your preconceptions; to craft an effective piece (and it is a craft) is a skill that we all have—but what marks adequate writers from good writers is the ability to learn.
I have been a writer for longer than I can remember—I was first published in 2010—and I know for sure that I’m a better writer today than I was then. I also know that I will be a better writer in ten more years than I am today. Why? Because I have learned more about how to write, by being open to commentary and advice from people who know what they’re talking about (and learning how to tell the difference between people who do and people who don’t is another skill), and reading a lot.
We can all learn how to write to a lesser or greater degree, and learning how to write an interesting, concise, and intelligent essay is one such learning curve. By using the essay form to inform, educate, and entertain (I’ve heard that somewhere before…), writers can showcase a subject to a wider audience, as long as it’s in an engaging and interesting form.
Here are a few suggestions as to how make essays come alive.
1. Read essays
This, perhaps, is the most obvious suggestion. In the same way that reading fiction can help mould your own style of fiction—consciously or subconsciously—reading essays can help you develop your own voice and build on the blocks you already have.
But when you’re selecting essays to read, you shouldn’t just read essays that agree with your point of view, or are just in your main area of interest. You need broaden your mind and your experiences, to help you clarify your own views, interests, and strengths. The wider your ability to read, the more techniques there are to pick up.
As you’re reading, think about what you’re reading as well; be critical. Don’t just take arguments at face value, because you can sure as hell be sure that people won’t take your arguments at face value—or, at least, you can hope that they don’t, because if they challenge, argue, or just ask questions, then it means they’re interested and engaged in what you’ve got to say. As you look at essays, think about what you like and don’t like; can you recognise a style even if you don’t agree with the actual arguments being put forward? Are they being persuasive—can you feel the allure of what they’re saying? Have they constructed a well-researched article with evidence and facts? Are there any techniques you could use in your own essays to make them engaging?
2. Using a diverse vocabulary
A good, broad vocabulary is attractive, interesting, and engaging. Using it as widely as possible will enable you to communicate ideas effectively. But, more importantly, having a diverse vocabulary doesn’t mean that you have to use it all the time; concise, pithy, and tight writing that stimulates the mind and engages the reader with your argument is precisely what you want to see—people will be far more interested in that kind of essay because it’ll engage them.
By reading widely and looking regularly for synonyms in the thesaurus are two ways that can help you engage your brain into new ways of expressing yourself, and it becomes more exciting when you do; you’re able to think of things in a broader context, and then sell it (or not, if the reader disagrees) to your audience.
3. Give context and views
Show that a plurality of views exist, even you don’t necessarily agree with them, and even if you want to give the majority of the essay—justifiably—over to your own critique. Acknowledging other points of view isn’t a bad thing, it merely helps showcase the spectrum of thought, and how you see those opinions in relation to your own views.
You don’t have to give quotes and citations in every other sentence to make it constructive, as that could make your own opinion be lost—and an effective essay lays out a viewpoint and a particular roadmap for getting there. But showing that there’s a spectrum of opinion shows critical reasoning skills and makes your essay more appealing.
4. Consider your voice
You may not consciously realise that you have a voice, but every writer does have one. We all possess our own particular style, and that appeals to different readers—so don’t be offended if some people don’t like it, as other people will.
Don’t necessarily formalise the voice you’re developing, but let it grow and form naturally—do you prefer to write seriously or more tongue-in-cheek? Do you find a layer of wit interlacing itself into every paragraph, or do you prefer keeping it drier? Either way can work, but it has to feel natural, so don’t fight against your natural style—just allow yourself to invest a natural flow and energy to your writing.
Don’t ramble, be concise, and allow your sentences to flow naturally without running on and on. And also use—please, this is so much more important than some people realise—good grammar. When a piece is riddled with poor construction, it makes the piece so much harder to understand. It’s also incredibly depressing.
Be confident with your voice, and don’t be afraid to give an opinion; you’re entirely allowed to have an opinion, and others are entirely allowed to agree or disagree. Having a healthy dialogue might mean that both sides learn something new, and your own voice might well develop further as a result.
5. Stay on topic
Here at Thanet Writers, our entire focus is to support writers in and with a connection to Thanet, publishing writing with artistic or educational merit, and promoting literature, creativity, and culture. A small acknowledgement to make; a significant part of that last sentence was lifted from the Thanet Writers website, because why reinvent the wheel when someone’s already done the work (and there’s another valuable lesson—Always Attribute Your Quotes)?
So the essays that are welcome for us need to have a connection to writing in some way; advice on an aspect of writing (from chapter construction to drafting, or from grammar and syntax to publishing and editors), a discussion on something that could help writers of a particular type of work (what a murder scene might look like, how a forensic laboratory works, or how an estate agent would easily become a spaceman—one particular storyline I thought about a few years ago but mercifully never went anywhere), or looking at the merits of a particular style, author, legacy, or something else within the writing community.
Whatever your field is, and if you’re thinking about submitting to us, then come and join us—your work will be taken seriously by our Essays Editor (me) and the team. If we can’t publish something, we’ll always let you know why, and there could well be occasions where we’ll work with writers to develop a concept into something we can publish.
The relationship between a writer, an editor, and a publisher is a close one, and an important one that I—that we—hugely respect. Crafting essays and opinions is a fascinating process, and having the opportunity to share them with a reader base is something I doubt very many people take for granted. To have the opportunity share those views through somewhere like Thanet Writers is something I encourage you to consider, and the views I’ve given in the piece about a good essay are just the start of the conversation, not the end. I welcome a diversity of views being shared; here’s to the essay!
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© 2018 Matthew Munson
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Thanet-based author Matthew has three novels published by Inspired Quill, is an inveterate blogger, and writing is his passion.