Date published January 15, 2015 by Shane Bryson. Date updated: September 17, 2015
Barring the obvious answer (to get a degree), in answering this question we need first to ask, what distinguishes an essay from any other form of writing? Most people will have strong intuitions that newspaper articles, scientific reports, and short stories, for example, are not forms of essay, but it might be hard to distinguish exactly why these don’t count as essays.
The difference lies in the stance a writer takes in composing an essay and the kind of thing that an essayist tries to do. We find a clue to the distinction in the general definition of the word “essay”: as a verb it means “to try,” and my dictionary of literary terms calls its noun form “a composition having no pretensions to completeness or thoroughness of treatment” and says that the “chief implication of the term is ‘a tentative study.’”
Essays try to provide an understanding of things that are essentially matters of interpretation, where the prospect of the final word on a subject is remote. In contrast, scientific reports try to describe something that happened (an experiment), and they are supposed to be minimally interpretive and nearly indisputable. Newspaper articles are similar in this way, presenting the facts and just the facts (at least in theory).
But something else must distinguish the essay form, since fictional narratives such as short stories also in some ways present a tentative study of things,. These two forms usually differ in content and aim. Narratives tell stories about how events unfold for characters and usually try to make us feel a certain way. Essays are closer to scientific reports in that their purpose is to tell us, most often explicitly, about the way we ought to understand something.
In sum, whereas a scientific report aspires to be indisputable, an essay strives to give a convincing interpretation of something (and interpretation is by definition disputable). Whereas a short story aims to make us feel, an essay intends to make us think.
Finally, a scientist is supposed to be inessential to her experiment and report; anyone should be able to perform the experiments, get the results, and record them in much the same way. A fiction writer relates to her writing in the opposite way; the story is fundamentally changed when told by anyone else. The essayist, again, falls somewhere between these two extremes. An essay’s argument should be convincing no matter who authors it—the logic of the argument should stand independent of the author—but an essay is also always an expression of the essayist’s opinion, which is by definition not objective fact.
In short, the essayist writes to communicate her opinion on a subject in order to convince her audience to take up this opinion. This is what makes an essay.
Academic essays, in particular, are characterised by a certain standard and approach.
essay. 1960. In S. Barnet, M. Berman, & W. Burto (Eds.), A dictionary of literary terms (pp. 39-40). Toronto, ON: Little, Brown.
Overview of academic essays
Paul Graham wrote recently on his perspectives on the written vs. spoken word.
Graham admits he’s more confident as a writer than a speaker. This biases his comparisons and his essay. He’d have benefited from talking to people who he thinks are both good speakers and good thinkers (and perhaps good writers) as they’d have the balanced perspective he admits he does not have. He writes:
Having good ideas is most of writing well. If you know what you’re talking about, you can say it in the plainest words and you’ll be perceived as having a good style. With speaking it’s the opposite: having good ideas is an alarmingly small component of being a good speaker.
Most writers are unable to write in plain words or unable to find good ideas. Why? I don’t know, but it’s harder than Graham suggests for most people. Graham has ideas and does write well in a simple style, but he’s assuming most people can do it because he can. Read the web for an hour: this is not the case. It’s splitting hairs to argue over whether there is more bad writing or bad speaking on planet earth since there is so much of both.
Speaking is harder in many ways than writing because it is performance. You have to do it live. Some people who do not like to perform try to do what Graham does: they try to memorize their way through it, which doesn’t work. You tend to fail when using a method for one form in another form. Performance means there is no undo and no revision, which is a huge part of the appeal of seeing bands and people do things live and in person. It’s why I’m paid more as a speaker than I am as a writer: the same was true for Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and even David Sedaris or Malcolm Gladwell.
Writing is harder in some ways than speaking. Writing must be self contained: there is no body language or vocal emphasis as everything must be in the words themselves. But the ability to revise and edit dozens of times narrows the gap. With enough work you can revise your way into competence. Yet speaking is performance: there is no revision of an event. You can perform it again to improve on mistakes, but each instance must be done every time. When you finish an essay, it is done forever.
With speaking it’s the opposite: having good ideas is an alarmingly small component of being a good speaker. I first noticed this at a conference several years ago. There was another speaker who was much better than me. He had all of us roaring with laughter. I seemed awkward and halting by comparison. Afterward I put my talk online like I usually do. As I was doing it I tried to imagine what a transcript of the other guy’s talk would be like, and it was only then I realized he hadn’t said very much.
This confuses entertainment with expression. Popular writing can be similarly hijacked – look at twitter and the web – all media has this problem. There are different tricks to use in each form, but an essay can make you laugh, or make you angry, or make you hit the Facebook like button, despite not saying much, or anything at all.
I do agree with Graham that some speakers and “thinkers” are popular solely because they are likable and entertain, or infuriate and inflame. But this is a failing of all mediums, including writing.
A few years later I heard a talk by someone who was not merely a better speaker than me, but a famous speaker. Boy was he good. So I decided I’d pay close attention to what he said, to learn how he did it. After about ten sentences I found myself thinking “I don’t want to be a good speaker.” Being a really good speaker is not merely orthogonal to having good ideas, but in many ways pushes you in the opposite direction.
Emerson, Gandhi, Churchill, MLK, Jesus, Socrates, Lincoln, Mandela. These are a handful of great thinkers who used speaking as a primary medium of expression.
It’s true that much of what some of them spoke was heavily written before it was spoken, but the world experienced these ideas first as spoken words.
I have to stop here to acknowledge that the history of thinking was spoken. The Ancient Greeks, where many of our big ideas still come from, talked. Writing as a primary way to express ideas wouldn’t arrive for 1500 years. Talking and thinking have a much older relationship than writing and thinking. That doesn’t mean speaking is better – writing has many advantages – but to sweep speaking aside is foolish, and reflects Graham’s bias more than his wisdom. Many ideas at many startups are discovered, shared and developed through spoken words. Pitch meetings, arguments at whiteboards, late night hacking sessions, discussions over lunch: it’s heavily spoken word. Life is mostly spoken, not written.
The way to get the attention of an audience is to give them your full attention, and when you’re delivering a prewritten talk your attention is always divided between the audience and the talk—even if you’ve memorized it. If you want to engage an audience it’s better start with no more than an outline of what you want to say and ad lib the individual sentences.
This is where Graham, whose work I admire, makes a big mistake. He has admitted he’s not a good speaker and doesn’t like the form. Why then does he feel qualified to give advice on how to do it well?
In my bestseller The Confessions of a Public Speaker I carefully explain audience attention depends on answering questions they came to hear. The majority of speakers fail at this, focusing on what they themselves wish to speak about, or what their slides will look like, rather than their audience. Speaking, like writing, is an ego trap. It’s not about you, it’s about them: what questions do they want answered? What stories did they come to hear? If you understand why your audience showed up at all, and deliver on it, you will keep their attention. Graham’s advice is all about the speaker, but that’s the common tragedy – it’s not about speaker. A speaker who studies the audience and puts together content that addresses their interests will always do well. They’re rare.
Before I give a talk I can usually be found sitting in a corner somewhere with a copy printed out on paper, trying to rehearse it in my head. But I always end up spending most of the time rewriting it instead.
I would never do this. I stay up late the night before, if needed, to finish preparing. I practice the talk several times, revising if needed, until I’m comfortable. This comfort allows me to be fully present with an audience and not worried about my knowledge of my own material. This is also how I ad-lib or change directions based on a live audience. My preparation gives me the confidence to make adjustments. An hour before my talk I’m not thinking much about my talk at all.
I do agree with Graham in some ways. I do prefer writing at times. But unlike Graham, I love both forms. I know I become a better writer every time I speak, and become a better speaker every time I write.
Related: An open letter to speakers, which gives specific practical advice on speaking.