As I’m working on my end-of-year essay for my Master’s program, I can’t help but feel exhilarated. Stressed, a bit frustrated, and banging my head against the wall, but exhilarated. For whatever reason I find most–not all but most–academic/essay writing exciting. (Yeah, I’m a geek. I own it.) I’m not alone in my love of academic/essay writing, not even among fiction writers. Edgar Allen Poe wrote essays on literature and writing. Virginia Woolf composed essays as well, most notably her book-length essay A Room of One’s Own.
Image retrieved from the Wikipedia entry on A Room of One’s OwnBut what’s the appeal? Why would anyone want to slave over books and analysis, real people and real-world issues, even statistics and other dry facts, rather than letting the imagination run wild in fiction or poetry? I say it’s because academic/essay writing isn’t actually much different from fiction and poetic writing.
What we tend to forget is that academic/essay writing is a creative act. Yes, it can feel very stifling when we’re assigned essay prompts in class and have to worry about writing something that the professor thinks fulfills said prompt. Yet even that sort of academic/essay writing can be creative, if we stumble across a prompt that we’re excited about. That’s where the creativity of academic/essay writing first appears: the topic.
As with anything we write, academic/essay writing becomes its most creative when we are passionate about the topic. We aren’t always so fortunate when we have to write essays for school; I just happened to luck out with my end-of-year essay in that I like one of the prompts and I have many, many thoughts on the book I’m analyzing. However, essays–even academic essays–outside of the classroom can be about anything you want. You just have to be interested in the subject and know something about it.
I personally have a lot of topics which I want to cover in an essay or academic book someday: sexuality and Harry Potter, an extension of my undergraduate critical thesis; the influence of Arthurian romances on the modern soap opera; even the evolution of the word “gay.”
Of course, not everyone who writes essays, even academically, write about literature or writing. My entire world is pretty much books and words. They’re how I understand and navigate the world and how I express my thoughts. It’s only natural for me to gravitate towards analyzing literature and its sociological, historical, and/or psychological impacts. You can write essays on the physical benefits of yoga and meditation, how economic turmoil after World War I served as a catalyst for the Nazi regime, your views on human consciousness, and so on. You can also write personal essays. (I’m not too familiar with these so I’ll leave a link to a Writer’s Digest article on the matter.) The possibilities are endless.
The part of academic/essay writing which requires the most creative effort, however, is the actual writing.
Let’s face it, first drafts are difficult in fiction and poetry; they’re even harder in non-fiction, especially academic/essay writing. The topic you’re writing about may be interesting but you’ll never keep the reader’s attention if your writing isn’t just as interesting.
Length is probably one of the first things we’re concerned about when reading–and writing–academic pieces and essays. As readers, we don’t want to read something tremendously long for fear of being bored. Still, we want the writer to thoroughly cover the subject–if they don’t, it’s not even worth reading. Academic/essay writers must be careful to find the right balance, and this balance is never the same from one piece to the next. We must know what to keep to make our point and which darlings to kill, a creative act which we find in fiction and poetry as well.
As in fiction and poetry, the voice and tone of the work can make or break the essay. In personal essays you also need a narrative arc. Then we have the demons that seem small but can have a huge impact: organization, grammar, sentence length variation, and word choice. Even the most minor error in word choice could put your essay out of the intellectual reach of your target audience.
Academic/essay writing is as much a creative act as fiction and poetry. Neither the topic nor the writing can be boring, especially to the writer. If something is boring the writer, it will certainly bore the reader. Academic/essay writing requires research, thought, and originality. You only need to find a topic you’re interested in and approach it like any other writing endeavor. You never know, you might be able to profit from it. (I had an essay published in the UC Davis Prized Writing Anthology as an undergraduate.)