Ask the Editor: Writing Essays
Editor Betty Kelly Sargent answers writing questions submitted by readers. This month, she takes a look at what makes a good essay.Dear Editor:
I want to write essays but have only written fiction so far. Any tips on how to write a good essay? —Harold B.
Essays at their best offer a different route into a writer’s mind than fiction or memoir: more indirect, perhaps, but also potentially thrilling, like listening in on the process of someone thinking, choosing and dismissing perceptions, alighting on one adjective rather than another through critical skill and the power of synthesis,” says Daphne Merkin in a recent issue of the New York Times Book Review. I agree.
And since you are new to essay writing, I suggest that you start off by reading a sampling of some of the best essays in print. For example, read “Goodbye to All That” by Joan Didion, Arguably by Christopher Hitchens, “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell, “Fail Better” by Zadie Smith, A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut, and “Once More to the Lake” by E.B White.
Try to work out what it is about these essays that makes them so strong. Then choose your subject; research it thoroughly; state your thesis in the opening paragraph; keep it moving, clear, fresh, original, and lose the extraneous adverbs; and write a compelling conclusion.
That should do it. If you are not happy with your first draft, be prepared to start again. Pretty soon you should get the hang of it and before you know it, you’ll be proud of the finished results.
If you have a question for the editor, please email Betty Sargent.
Betty Kelly Sargent is the founder and CEO of BookWorks.