In school, you were probably taught three types of essays: narrative essays, expository essays, and persuasive essays. That’s what I was taught, and I had a few teachers who claimed there was no other form of useful writing, which obliged me to mentally tack on creative writing as its own category. As I’ve been working on a pair of philosophical pieces recently (the first one, Revising Memories, went live a few weeks ago), I’ve found myself going back to the original trio of essay types, and I realized that they are still informing my writing in ways both positive and negative. With that realization, I thought that crafting a post on the topic might be beneficial to both of us.
According to my English teachers, all essays, regardless of their flavor, are composed of an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. Every introduction would have a hook, an outline of the body, and a thesis, every component of the body would contain three supporting arguments and one addressed counterargument, and every conclusion would restate the thesis. Oh, and an introduction and a conclusion should each be only a single paragraph, with which I often took particular issue. I vividly remember crafting a beautiful introduction to a persuasive piece in which I set up a contextual narrative, but it took me two paragraphs to get to my thesis, and I was told in no uncertain terms that such a form would never do. From these starting points, the essays would diverge into their various flavors.
The Narrative Essay
Of the three essay types, this one is the closest to storytelling. While many of my English teachers would never admit that it could be telling the story of someone else, and not yourself, it is still telling a story. What makes it an essay, however, and how it was taught to me in school, is that it still must have a central thesis, some main argument that the overall narrative is supposed to be making, a point it is trying to drive home. In other words, every narrative should be a polemic, and a two-hundred-thousand-word novel is really just an unfocused narrative essay without an adequate thesis. I wonder if you’re writing two hundred thousand words in a single “essay” if you get more than a single paragraph for your introduction.
The Expository Essay
An informational form of writing, the expository essay is supposed to be used to convey information about a topic. This is nonfiction writing in its purest form…except that most English teachers still insist that it should have a thesis and an argument. A truly expository essay should not be trying to argue a point: it exists to present information to the reader, not to convince the reader of the moral righteousness of Lyme disease. You begin now to see the outline of the issue with this method of essay instruction that I have rigorously identified over the course of writing dozens of essays for this site.
The Persuasive Essay
Here, at last, we come to the essay that, upon more mature reflection, I now believe the base form outlined above is most intended for, and the essay that school apparently most wanted all of us to learn. This is the polemic, the piece intended to bring others to accept a certain argument or point of view, and it is for that purpose that the having a central thesis, supporting arguments and addressed counterarguments, and an emphasizing of the thesis in the conclusion makes the most sense. The sympathy between this type of essay and the base form has begun, I think, to have ripple effects in everything from how people interact to how new writing is done.
One of the central lessons taught to me about writing persuasive essays was that you can allow no uncertainty into your work. The same was taught of expository writing, that any glimmer of doubt, any tiny signal that you do not have the conviction of a saint in whatever argument you happen to be making or whatever facts you happen to be presenting, would invalidate the entire exercise. The counterarguments that were to be included were really just there to be token sacrifices that you shoot down to show the inferiority of any position other than your own. It is a recipe for zealotry.
The problem is not with the three types of essays that were taught (although I would now argue that there are more than three types). Rather, the problem was in teaching the same framework for all three types of writing. At a very high level, perhaps, all writing will consist of an introduction of some sort, some kind of middle content that we could call the body, and a conclusion, but the existence of a thesis and certain arguments is useful only in certain forms. When I write a post about the photoelectric effect, for instance, I am not trying to make a central argument or bring readers to a certain point of view – I am just trying to inform them about a physics phenomenon.
By making everything follow a form that is mostly suited to persuasive writing, we risk transforming every piece of writing into proselytizing for one position or another. A simple book review might become a dire matter of persuading you why one book is better than another, instead of a simple sharing of my thoughts on what I read, that you might have the information either before or after you read the book. Yes, my book reviews are intended as much to be read after you’ve read the book as when you’re deciding whether to read it.
Refusing to admit any valid counterarguments or flaws in the central thesis, even in a persuasive style essay, leaves no room for dialogue, and actually weakens the argument (at least for me). I posted a few months ago about an essay called Reinvigorating Economic Governance, which seemed to obey this idea that you should not admit any real flaws or counterarguments exist to your own point, and its failure to address real concerns or substantial gaps in its own logic made it a weaker, less persuasive essay to me, even though I largely agreed with one of its central tenets (the primacy of the individual). Admitting where you lack information, or where there are reasonable alternative and cogent counterarguments that cannot simply be dismissed, actually makes a persuasive piece stronger by demonstrating that you are not just out to bludgeon people over the head with your writing until they surrender to your point of view.
One of the most important realizations I have ever had was that there are not right answers: there are only wrong answers, and less wrong answers, and our goal is to find less wrong answers, not to find right answers. That concept has become the underpinning of how I try to approach the world, and it necessarily informs both my writing and my reading. As I continue working on the second of those philosophical pieces I mentioned, you could argue that I’ll be using a persuasive form, that it is really just a persuasive essay. Most of my English teachers, I think, would argue that it’s a poorly written persuasive essay, because I’m not writing it as if a bolt of lightning from heaven came down and told me the Truth. Instead, I’m writing it as a fallible human being who knows that, even if there somehow could be right answers, I certainly don’t have them. But maybe we can figure out how to be a little less wrong, together.