Members only! The Blunt Instrument: How do I put together an essay?
As a supporter of Electric Literature, you get members-only Blunt Instrument advice columns every other month. To ask the Blunt Instrument about your own writing anxieties, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Blunt Instrument,
I’ve been trying to write essays, but have struggled to put them together with a structure I like. Something I’m writing on the relation between soccer and the sense of shame professional players have always talked about in the aftermath of big games, from a Brazilian perspective (where I’m from), draws on history, novels and current affairs. Whenever I try to put these elements together, my instinct is very academic — I start with the premise, go to the history, add bits from the novels and current affairs, then spell out my conclusions.
But the essays I enjoy are not just didactic, they are also evocative of some emotion and immerse me into a different world. There’s something more natural and poetic about the way they are structured.
How can I structure my essays in a way that seems more poetic than academic?
I once had an editor spell out for me the formulaic, three-act structure that almost all the columns he edits follow. He was somewhat apologetic about it, but I actually enjoyed working with the constraints of the formula. (An old poetry teacher of mine, Bill Knott, used to do a cool exercise whereby you could turn any poem into a sonnet.) Most of the time, however, I don’t have a formula handed to me; I’m just finding my own way.
There are tons of ways to structure an essay, endless ways — lyric essays often have no clear underlying structure at all, but are collaged in such a way that you could easily imagine all the parts being rearranged. I like the diagrams in this essay by Tim Bascom, “Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide,” which illustrate some of the many different shapes that personal essays can take (“the whorl of reflection,” “dipping into the well”) without just moving linearly to an apparently predetermined conclusion.
I won’t claim to be an expert in every form an essay can take, but I’ve found a process that works for me and is adaptable to the different subjects I want to write about, so here’s how I do it.
First, I recommend spending plenty of time in the pre-writing stage. When you’re getting started on an essay, don’t even think about structure yet. Just put yourself in “working on something” mode and stay there for as long as you can stand. During this phase of the process, you should keep either a physical notebook or an electronic document for notes. Read voraciously on the subject of your essay, or, if it’s pure memoir, think voraciously. Write down thoughts, partial thoughts, images, full sentences and paragraphs and passages, quotes and sources, associations, and so on, but don’t worry yet about where they’ll end up in the essay or even if they’ll make it into the final essay. For now you’re just collecting. You can curate and order your notes later.
There will come a time when you’re ready to actually write the essay. Maybe it’s because your deadline is coming up! Or maybe it’s just a feeling. I often find that after taking notes for a month or more, I already know where I want to start. If not, I can at least see that my notes have gathered around three to five clear themes. I think of these as sub-topics or sub-essays, sections that I know I want to include in the larger essay. If your notes aren’t coalescing into ways that are already obvious to you, read back through them and try to identify a few sub-essays. (I like to star and highlight little bits of language or sentences that I absolutely know I want to make it to the final essay.)
Then: Start with something interesting. A fascinating fact or anecdote, something that will draw the reader in. It doesn’t have to be the true chronological beginning of the story, such as it is — better that it reveal to the reader why you are fascinated by this subject, and will start to get them fascinated too. Then follow and explore that opening until you reach a stopping point that is also an opening up: the opening of an essay should hint at the kinds of questions or ideas the rest of the essay will explore.
From there I would suggest you not overdetermine the structure too much — the structure can emerge as you draft. What follows naturally from the opening “sub-essay”? I like to approach the writing in sections because you can always rearrange the sections later, add new sections, or cut them entirely. A friend of mine once described an essay as “journey with stops along the way,” different “vistas” from which to view the landscape of the subject, and I like that metaphor — as the writer, you’re taking the reader on a path, and offering them different points of view. Even if they’ve seen this place before, they may not have seen it with you as their guide.
When it comes to endings, I like to save something for the end — some lovely quote or story or insight that I’ve wanted to include but that hasn’t fit anywhere yet. But I also try to save some thinking for the end, to allow some new idea to bloom. In the map of the essay, the path might veer off in a slightly unexpected direction, correct some of the essay’s earlier thinking, or disappear over the horizon.
The best essays, in my opinion, don’t snap shut too neatly. They don’t feel too sure, advertising 100% confidence. That doesn’t mean an essay needs to end on a literal question or a “who the hell knows anything” note. But it’s nice to feel there is some mystery, something as yet undiscovered. I think of essays almost as cross-sections from a more extended line of thinking. The essay can’t possibly capture all your thinking on this topic, and if you’re a great essayist you’ll keep thinking about it after it’s “done” (or published).
I hope something in this process proves helpful for you in your work.
~The Blunt Instrument