But a writer’s presence in the essay can both provide an arc to the essay and guide the reader’s journey through a particular subject.
Writer David Rains Wallace usually uses first-person to some degree in both his essays for and his books, which he considers extended essays.
I think they’re probably right—except that I’ve never been exactly sure what an essay is.
When I think essay, I think five plodding paragraphs about the use of light as a symbol in Or I imagine much more experienced, serious writers picking up their pens, like Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century Frenchman who spent most of his career honing some of the earliest examples of the form. So I asked other writers and editors for their thoughts about what essays are, and what makes good ones work.
The underlying structure, Hopson says, is what separates the two.
In an essay, the writer directs the movement from idea to idea; a feature’s structure comes from its subject.But sometimes, when I’m trying to start out an essay, I’m not sure yet where the action is.Panek, co-author of “because the moment that you start to put something down on paper, the reader is already interested in what came before.” The beginning of Belle Boggs’ lovely essay “The Art of Waiting” does just that.Without change, she says, an essay is just something that happened, a topic instead of a story.Change can come through earth-shattering revelation—or, as Boggs shows, through quiet, even tentative steps.Then in the final graphs, Boggs notes that the cicadas have stopped singing.“The silence is startling at first—I step outside each morning expecting to hear that seashell sound—but it’s also a relief. Transformation is critical to the success of a personal essay, says Evelyn Strauss, a writer and editor who teaches the UCSC essay course in alternating years.For those already writing about science, an essay can be a way of stepping into an unfamiliar field, whether it’s fluid dynamics or immunology, and exploring the most personally compelling facets.Essays are, in fact, what got Richard Panek, a journalist and fiction writer, into writing about science.“An essay can have just as much factual information, but it’s based around this unique, personal, internal logic,” says Hopson, who teaches a science essay course to graduate students in the University of California, Santa Cruz’s Science Communication program.Bringing this personal, internal logic to an idea can open up previously unexplored territory for readers—and for writers as well.