Writing Essays

I just found this on the net on David Walker’s interesting site Shorewalker.

It’s Paul Graham explaining why one might write an essay.

To understand what a real essay is, we have to reach back into history … to Michel de Montaigne, who in 1580 published a book of what he called “essais.” He was doing something quite different from what lawyers do, and the difference is embodied in the name. 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.

Figure out what? You don’t know yet. And so you can’t begin with a thesis, because you don’t have one, and may never have one. An essay doesn’t begin with a statement, but with a question. In a real essay, you don’t take a position and defend it. You notice a door that’s ajar, and you open it and walk in to see what’s inside.

If all you want to do is figure things out, why do you need to write anything, though? Why not just sit and think? Well, there precisely is Montaigne’s great discovery. Expressing ideas helps to form them. Indeed, helps is far too weak a word. Most of what ends up in my essays I only thought of when I sat down to write them. That’s why I write them.

In the things you write in school you are, in theory, merely explaining yourself to the reader. In a real essay you’re writing for yourself. You’re thinking out loud.

But not quite. Just as inviting people over forces you to clean up your apartment, writing something that other people will read forces you to think well.

I couldn’t agree more.

But right now I’m off to the pub to meet up with Ken Parish, Jen (both of whom are down in Melbourne for the weekend) and other Troppodillians. I wonder what they look like?

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David Tiley
2021 years ago

Really frightening, Nick.

David Tiley
2021 years ago

Very frightening Nick. Bring your penicillin.

David Tiley
2021 years ago

See, I am stuttering with fear already.

Nicholas Gruen
2021 years ago

You were right Dave!

2021 years ago

The book I was referring to Nicholas was Andrew Gamble’s “Hayek: The Iron Cage of Liberty”, (Polity Press , 1996). I don’t mean to suggest it is a great book, and there are bits I disagree with, but it is a solid workmanlike critical appraisal, and as one (very minor) theme does draw out the relationship between Hayek and certain left streams of thought.

Good to meet you. Cheers.

2021 years ago

” writing something that other people will read forces you to think well.”


That goes for speking as well. I rarely know what I am going to say until I am saying it. The thought and the action are simultaneous.

In writing, it is very similar.

I am moved to respond and in the response I discover how to express what I am thinking.