Essay Writing: What’s the Point?

For several months now, I have been reading Jan Zwicky’s Lyric Philosophy. Jan Zwicky is a philosopher-poet and one of the coolest Canadians around. According to Zwicky, what distinguishes an essay from other forms of writing that we know and love is argument. Jan Zwicky says of argument that it is, “central to philosophy because it is an objective method. Basic logic is something one can teach even to a machine” (14). It occurs to me that it is this mechanical aspect of essay-writing that riles many of us. We think of writing as something creative, inventive, and expressive. Zwicky reminds us that, at least in the form that is argumentative, writing is logical, systematic, analytical. No wonder it also seems joyless, uninspired, and pragmatic!

And yet, there are other, more limited pleasures that we can find in this form. I see two. First, there is the mechanical, objective pleasure of building a thing from the ground up, of putting pieces together (like we might a bookshelf or a table) and making it into a thing that actually serves a purpose. The purpose is the thesis and it better be worth the effort! This first pleasure is akin to the appreciation we might have for solving a math equation in just a few steps. Elegance and logic are two features of this mechanical pleasure. The second pleasure is that of concision. The well-articulated phrase demands a lot of the writer and is a real gift to the reader.  Clear, concise sentences result from years of focused work, much like a healthy body results from years of exercise and eating well. While it isn’t glamorous, there is something deeply satisfying to be gained from daily efforts to be concise.

I realize that these pleasures are modest. Yet, their plain promises belie the real wonder of the academic essay and that is that it requires us to think about something outside of ourselves and to engage with the world around us in a way that is honest, thoughtful, and communicative. For most people, life presents no other opportunity to think seriously about Francis Bacon’s scientific method or Marx’s concept of historical materialism or the debate about whether or not Beauty is a subjective or objective thing. Indeed, in the “real world” such thinking is often considered self-indulgent or impractical. Yet, whatever thinking we do in the strictly defined form of the academic essay can then be brought out in more raucous occasions and to more passionate purposes, like love letters and late night arguments. Likewise, the skill set honed in the argumentative essay will prove invaluable when it comes time to write cover letters and other such practical missives.


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