Aug 4, 2017

Some Thoughts about Writing Essays

With his 250th essay, Smith interrupts his series on abolitionism to offer some reflections on writing essays.

I posted my first Excursions essay on November 3, 2011. That was over 5-1/2 years ago, and the count now stands at 250 essays. That’s a lot of writing, especially when we recall that these are substantive essays of at least 1500 words each. Virtually all of them deal with the history of ideas in different fields, though they share a common focus on the history of the idea of freedom.

When I began the Excursions project over 5 years ago I was determined to write essays rather than articles. The distinction may seem a subtle one, but there are important differences. When Montaigne pioneered the modern essay style in the sixteenth century, he departed from the traditional style of writing philosophical articles. His essays ranged over a broad range of subjects, and they were typically surveys rather than definitive arguments. And his essays were highly personal. Montaigne did not hesitate to interject his own opinions when discussing a topic—opinions that were sometimes eccentric when viewed from a conventional point of view.

One thing I have learned during my 45 years as a professional writer is that it is very difficult for me to write something unless I have some enthusiasm for the topic. In 1976 I ghostwrote a book for Sy Leon (a former associate of Robert LeFevre) titled None of the Above. For most of the chapters I recorded interviews with Sy and crafted his ideas into words, but near of the end of the project I realized that we didn’t have enough material to fill a book. So with only a few days to go before the deadline, I wrote several chapters from scratch, without any input from Sy, based on ideas (such as spontaneous order) that interested me personally.

I wrote the material I took from Sy with difficulty. Even though I agreed with Sy’s ideas, writing them down was frustrating, almost painful at times. But my own ideas I wrote with ease. The writing process went quickly and was even enjoyable at times. This experience taught that me I should never ghostwrite another book unless financial necessity left me little choice. It also reinforced something that I already knew, namely, that I need to find a “hook” that connects me personally to the topic before attempting to write about it. If I am indifferent to a subject then writing about it is like typing while wearing boxing gloves. I feel as if my style is equivalent to that found in a Dick and Jane story.

Many years ago I asked a fellow freelance writer and close friend, Jeff Riggenbach, if he enjoyed writing. He replied that he enjoyed “having written” but not the process of writing itself. I understood Jeff’s comment but identified with it only to a point. When writing is going well for me I lapse into a “zone” in which times passes quickly and I have little conscious awareness of what I am doing. This subconscious process is possible only because of extensive preparation before I begin writing. I will read or reread books (or, more commonly, parts of books) days before I begin writing an Excursions essay, even when I am already very familiar with the material. I will then let the ideas rattle around in my head, trusting my subconscious to organize them in some kind of order. Then, not long before I begin writing, I will formulate a mental outline of the essay. But this outline frequently changes as the writing proceeds. During the actual writing a new angle or perspective will sometimes occur to me, and I typically go with that. I have never used written outlines; I regard them as a waste of time, and even as detrimental to the final product. A written outline might finalize the content of an essay before the creative act of writing is permitted to do its work.

Writing can be enjoyable for me, provided I am confident enough with the material to trust my subconscious not to lead me too far astray. I am sometimes wrong, of course; as I review an essay written months or years ago I may wince at a passage and wish I had written it differently. My factual errors are rare, but my judgments may falter at times, especially when dealing with generalizations. Generalizations are the bane of essay writers. It is almost always possible to find exceptions to generalizations, so the question for the writer is: Should I include qualifications like “In most cases” or “For the most part”? Precision would dictate yes, such qualifications should be included for the sake of accuracy. But one’s style would become insufferably cluttered if a writer were to precede every generalization with a qualification. I try to resolve this problem with a reasonable compromise. In important cases I may qualify generalizations, but in lesser cases I may assume that the reader understands that every generalization is not universally true.

Over the years some young writers have asked me about style. It is difficult to give advice about style, considering how individualized it is. A style emerges imperceptibly, over time, from the character and peculiar talents of the writer. But when dealing with nonfiction, as essential factor of a good style is clarity. There are no exceptions to this that I know of, unless a writer deliberately intends to be ambiguous or paradoxical. I have known clear thinkers who don’t write well, but I have never known clear writers who don’t think clearly. So my advice to young writers is: Write as clearly as you can, and let your style develop spontaneously from there. If you find that you write muddled prose, don’t work on your writing; work instead on your thinking. No essay writer can possibly be a master of every subject he or she may write about, but essay writers can and should master the particular aspects of a subject that he or she wishes to explain to others. By this I mean that essay writers should have a sense of control over their topic, and they should be able to express this control to their readers without parading their academic credentials. I am never impressed by writers who say, in effect, “I have a PhD in this field, so you should take me seriously.” Credentialed academics—especially supposed experts in the social sciences—are as liable to write nonsense as anyone else.

Perhaps the best advice I can give to young essay writers is to read and reread essay writers you admire, mark those passages you regard as especially effective, and then think about why those passages work so well. This is what I did when I first read George Orwell’s essays decades ago. I regard Orwell as the finest essay writer in the English language. This is not to say that I have attempted to mimic Orwell’s style—that would be at once foolish and pointless—but I have learned a great deal from him, and I frequently reread some of his essays, such as “Shooting an Elephant.” This essay is as perfect as it is possible for an essay to be. I would also nominate Orwell for writing one the best opening lines ever in an essay, “England Your England” (written while the Nazis were bombing London): “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.”  

I would die a happy man if I ever managed to write an opening line as good as this one by Orwell.