Article by Jeanne Dininni
The mere mention of the term “essay” is enough to strike fear in even the stoutest heart. That simple, unassuming word conjures horrific visions of endless hallways teeming with students, bodies packed into classrooms like sardines, legendary cafeteria food (and cafeteria food fights), schoolyard bullies, and massive amounts of unnecessary homework.
It’s easy to see why, for many, the essay is a topic-and a chapter of their lives-they’d really rather forget. But, is the much-maligned essay really unique to the academic world, or is it simply misunderstood? Does it actually show up in other venues, as well?
Perhaps defining the term would help. I like Encarta’s definition: “essay – short nonfiction prose piece: a short analytic, descriptive, or interpretive piece of literary or journalistic prose dealing with a specific topic, especially from a personal and unsystematic viewpoint.”
From this definition, it’s obvious that many of the articles and other non-fiction pieces we write are essays-whatever else we may call them (i.e., article, blog post, etc.). (Straight factual pieces would be the main exception.)
For our purposes, then, let’s assume that most of the non-fiction we write consists of essays. And let’s see if we can’t use a few simple essay-writing secrets to add impact to our work.
1. Devise a Plan of Attack
Creating an effective essay means far more than simply deciding on a topic and then “winging it.” It means first refining your topic to give it a specific focus, then developing your angle or “treatment,” planning how you’ll set up your essay, researching your topic, and finally, writing.
Even if you’d rather not make a traditional outline (i.e., three main points, three sub-points, etc.), plan your piece carefully. This lets you present your material in a logical, organized way, making your reader confident that you actually know what you’re talking about. (You do, don’t you?)
Planning your essay might include dividing it into the usual three sections-Introduction, Body, and Conclusion-and simply listing all the points you want to cover in the Body, as I did for this piece. (It wasn’t necessary to break each section down further-though I could have, and you may want to.)
2. Dig Up Some Background
Just how much research your essay requires will depend on the complexity of your topic, your own personal knowledge of it, the type of essay you’re writing, your audience, and the requirements of your market.
This is where you’ll delve into your topic to find all the information and supporting details to bolster your thesis and illustrate your points. Unless you know your topic extremely well, don’t skimp here. The Internet makes research so much easier than it ever was, so there’s no excuse. Your audience will appreciate having your fascinating opinions backed up by a little hard data. Check your facts, because readers always appreciate accuracy, and your credibility is on the line.
3. Create a Scintillating Title
Grab your reader’s attention immediately with an intriguing title that promises a worthwhile read. You have mere seconds to capture your audience’s imagination and pique your potential readers’ interest. Don’t let them stop reading before they find out how great your article is. Entice them with a fascinating but accurate title.
4. Write an Alluring Lead
While writing an intriguing title will lure the curious into sampling your essay, a captivating lead will reel them in, irresistibly drawing even the most reticent reader into your piece by creating a natural desire to learn more about your topic or be entertained by more of your engaging prose. Give the reader a reason to care about what you have to say in the remainder of your piece. Create anticipation by providing a sneak preview of the wit and wisdom to come in the rest of your essay.
5. Observe the Rules of “Engagement”
Engage your reader at every turn. Speak directly to him or her. Make your content relevant-or at the very least, too fascinating to ignore. Weave your words in ways that make your readers really want to read on, even-or especially-if your topic isn’t one they’re drawn to naturally. Use your own unique voice, and to the extent that your subject matter allows, let your sterling personality shine through. Make your topic come alive for your reader, and you’ll have a fan for life.
6. Make a Dramatic Exit
Say something memorable, witty, or profound, emotionally stirring or thought-provoking, humorous or dramatic as you bid your readers farewell. Leave them with a powerful reminder of your literary presence, an impact that will resonate long after they’ve moved on. Give them an impressive standard against which to compare all their future literary encounters.
Aside from the above six points, always remember to take good notes, organize your material logically, express yourself clearly, and cite your sources (if required). I won’t belabor those points, however, because the final piece of advice for a striking essay is this:
7. Know when to end it.
Jeanne Dininni is an independent writer and blogger, whose work appears in various online and print venues. She authors the Writer’s Notes blog, does freelance and contract writing and editing, and writes business guides at Work.com.