I recently read Paul Graham’s: The Age of the Essay, and I was immediately inspired to write. Like many of my peers, I was introduced to writing as a means to collect and summarize other people's ideas during high school. Over time, I learned that exploring and consolidating your own ideas can be a much more rewarding exercise. It's time for me to put that belief to the test. Below you'll find my ideas on the topic which I deemed to be absolutely and irrefutably the most important: essay writing.
Writing is a tool for thinking. Just like speech, you’re free to form thoughts as you go. Unlike speech, you can perfectly recall all of your previous thoughts if you write them down. As a result, the focused mind has the freedom to quickly wander into new territory without fear of losing past progress. Like programming and math, it changes the way in which you think by enforcing a new set of constraints, through grammar and the necessity to express how different ideas are connected. In writing, grammatical constraints leave less room for ambiguity, which helps you tie together the loose strands of knowledge which you’ve collected over the years. Some work most effectively by rewriting their work. Others are able to create completely unedited material full of insights.
Thoughts which arise outside of writing are important to the writing process. The mind has an incredible ability to combine accumulated knowledge in new and interesting ways. But it might do so only occasionally when pushed to do so, and more frequently on an involuntary basis. Original thoughts seem to be the fruit of discovery, not search.
By communicating your ideas through mediums with low costs of replication, you can leverage them to an unprecedented extent. Your thoughts have the ability to provide millions of readers with insights about both you and your content.
What qualifies as good essay writing?
There are two conditions which I believe make non-fiction writing good:
- First, the final content has to be original. Otherwise you might as well read and share existing essays. However, you don’t always know at the outset of writing an essay what you will exactly write. Writing may have a similar productivity curve as reading, or any action for that matter. You need to start before you know whether you want to continue. But how original should the content have to be exactly? The content may have been created already in another medium, with another language, or with another level of information density. The test for originality is thereby created by the eventual reader of a text. Only a single reader would have to be able to extract new information from an article (as opposed to just seeing a link to similar material), for it to achieve some level of originality. Form and function serve the same purpose: to convey an understanding. In the quest for originality, do you have an obligation to look for all that has been written before? Under the assumption that it is still possible to write something original, it is more effective to narrow your focus on an idea first. There is a lot of local knowledge in society, so don’t worry, your idea will be there. As long as your idea is the first to be able to change a person’s mind, you created something of value.
- Second, the final content has to be correct. Absolute correctness is a fallacy, so the best you can do to ensure your essay is correct is by stating assumptions, sources, and to be open to improvements and criticism from your readers. In order to reach eventual correctness, you may aim to make statements falsifiable. However, many concepts and definitions are fuzzy. Some blogs (like ribbonfarm) build upon fragile fuzzy concepts and make it hard for the reader to evaluate whether they are reading fiction or nonfiction. As a general heuristic, I believe that you can effectively write about narrow domain-specific fuzzy concepts, since your own intuition may have become good enough to connect the dots to convey meaningful information.