What Paul Graham has to say about essay writing

by stronged

Adrian posted an article about debunking some myths about essay writing. Here are some nuggets I’ve managed to glean from it:

Essayer is the French verb meaning “to try” and an essai is an attempt. An essay is something you write to try to figure something out.

An essay is supposed to be a search for truth.

I enjoy whenever a writer delves into the etymology of terms used in common language. It is inspiring to find that this is supposed to be what essay writing is all about.

The path it has discovered is the most economical route to the sea. 

Using a river as a metaphor for a good essay, Graham explains that an essay may duck and weave into various areas, but it does so for focused and economical reasons.

So if you want to write essays, you need two ingredients: a few topics you’ve thought about a lot, and some ability to ferret out the unexpected.

The unexpected is immensely important for any time of engagement, as J.J. Abrams says in his TED talk about the element of mystery. To engage an audience is to string them along on an ontological hunt.

It’s good to have a habit of asking questions, especially questions beginning with Why. But not in the random way that three year olds ask why.

More in a focused, logical way. An inquisitive mind I find is invaluable for a rewarding life.

I find it especially useful to ask why about things that seem wrong. 

These are usually the first itches I need to scratch when reading a paper or interpreting a particular scholar’s theory. I need to understand where they are coming from. In order to do this, I usually try to place myself in their shoes – look for the similarities I share with them in order to understand where they are coming from. Try to look from the inside out, rather than the outside in. Only when I feel I roughly understand where they are coming from is when I can begin to comprehend what I feel is “wrong” in their theory.

the main value of notebooks may be what writing things down leaves in your head.

This method I feel has its routes in the tried and true practice of learning by rote. The act of writing points down to remember or reflect upon is engaging your sensory-motor system and thus triggering neural pathways that may not have come into fruition if you just had a thought and endeavoured to remember it.

Study lots of different things, because some of the most interesting surprises are unexpected connections between different fields.

This I do. But to my detriment. I become too widely read and, like Adrian has mentioned, do not channel my research into a narrow field in order to extrapolate upon a specific quandary or topic.

It is definitely an aspect of academic research that I thoroughly enjoy though. Spreading my tentacles across a wide terrain of material and drawing connections between topics I feel hold similar structures or concepts.

If you’re curious about something, trust your instincts. Follow the threads that attract your attention.

I have a love-hate relationship with this point. Ultimately, it all depends on the deadline for the project. If it’s in a week, like the one I am encountering at the moment, I do not have the luxury to think laterally or act on potentially useful creative or inspiring opportunities for I need to allocate all of my time and energy into reading and writing as much as possible. Drawing connections between the information I read and my own experiences instead of jumping into external sources.

If there’s one piece of advice I would give about writing essays, it would be: don’t do as you’re told. Don’t believe what you’re supposed to. Don’t write the essay readers expect; one learns nothing from what one expects. And don’t write the way they taught you to in school.

I have trouble reconciling the points made by rebellious papers like this one with my own experiences relating to feedback I have received from my assessors. What happened to the age-old maxim “you must first learn the rules before you can break them”? I have no chance in receiving a good mark if I hand in a piece of writing that deviates from the conventional method of academic writing (i.e. introduction, contextualising chapters x 2, a chapter comparing/contrasting the two, followed by a conclusion). Thems the breaks. There is no point in my fantasising that there is an opportunity to do so. None in the least.

For me, the main point this essay is making is not to get bogged down in perfecting one’s writing but to own your research investigation and therefore establish your own voice. To conduct an investigation is to write to a problem and see where it takes you. The rigour of academic writing can shape your focus along the way, but it should not debilitate your writing process. On the contrary, if academic writing is not working for you – bench it until you the last half of the game.