| Genre: eLearning | Language: English
If you have a clever anecdote, an interesting memory, a new way to explain how something works, or an opinion on a social or political issue, then you have an essay in you. Unlike a novel, history book, or scientific publication, essays provide you with the versatility to express all the various facets that make you you. The concise and direct nature of an essay means that you may tap into your sense of wit, share your individual point of view, persuade others to your perspective, and record a part of your memories for future generations in as many distinct essay forms as you wish.
Discover the keys to unlocking your potential in essay writing with Becoming a Great Essayist. These 24 illuminating lectures explore numerous genres or types of essays, challenge you with stimulating writing prompts, and provide insights into how to get to know yourself like never before so that you may write honest, compelling, and GREAT essays. And because essays are so flexible in their style and function, the skills you build writing great essays may be applied to almost all other forms of writing.
Dr. Jennifer Cognard-Black, Professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, is your expert guide. Professor Cognard-Black—who is an award-winning author, a 2012 Fulbright Scholar, and a former student of the renowned author Jane Smiley—has an intimate, honest, and direct approach. She teaches you that the versatility and expressiveness of the essay make it an ideal medium for crafting stories and drawing perspectives out of even the most reluctant writers. As Professor Cognard-Black notes, “The essay has no fixed parameters apart from including a first-person narrator who is intent on telling the truth. An essay’s form and style is entirely dependent upon your purpose—and your audience. You get to create a new form, and adopt a new style, with each essay that you write.… Essays explore. Essays imagine. Essays digress. Their structures don’t have to have fixed rules.” The goal of a great essay is to connect a personal experience, an idea, or a memory to the world outside of yourself—and the first step is to look deep within your memories, knowledge, and opinions to find that experience. When mastered, the ability to write a great essay provides a solid foundation that allows you to move into other forms of writing with both confidence and skill.
The first step in your journey with Professor Cognard-Black is to redefine what the essay means. For many, the word “essay” brings flashbacks of the schoolroom. Whether you were the kind of student who couldn’t wait to get started or one who faced each writing assignment with a feeling of dread, this course will change how you think about and approach the essay. From the very first lecture, you’ll see how the five-paragraph essay you might remember is vastly different from the master-level essays you’ll review, analyze, and learn to create. You’ll get instrumental insight into what makes an essay great; learn how to work your own stories, perspectives, and memories into a compelling piece; and investigate what to do once you’ve crafted an essay that you want to share.
Essay Types: From Personal to Public
Since the 16th century, essays have served as a means of connection: a way to persuade others to a certain perspective, a medium to tell a story, and a written record of individual and national histories. The word “essay” comes from the French essai, meaning an attempt or a trial, which speaks to the flexibility of the form in both delivery and outcomes. The essay itself is a thought experiment which can employ a variety of lengths, styles, and genres, including political, personal, humorous, and historical approaches. Further, a well-written essay may evoke an assortment of emotions or reactions. These works, often short yet profoundly poignant, have the power to make readers laugh, cry, think, or change their opinions or actions. Even the delivery platforms are versatile—essays are published in journals and newspapers, anthologies and collections, blogs and web pages, and more.
When it comes to crafting a great piece of writing, Professor Cognard-Black begins with well-established principles derived from Aristotle, who believed that writers are most convincing when they create a strong ethos (or credibility), and then support this ethos with appeals to reason (logos) and emotion (pathos). Similar rhetorical strategies are still utilized today in creating compelling stories and arguments. Most importantly, essays use a convincing and honest first-person voice because the writer has a deep connection to the material that comes from living, witnessing, or caring profoundly about an experience. By merging what Aristotle calls the artistic proofs (the pathos of the essay, or the personal experience and thoughts, and the logos of the essay, or rationality) with the inartistic proofs (or research and data), your essay will come across as credible even to skeptical readers.
Over these 24 enlightening lectures, you’ll delve into the various genres of the essay.
Epistolary essays originated in the politics, philosophy, and theology of Greco-Roman rhetoricians. Letters or “epistles” are unlike any other means of communication, which is exactly what draws essay writers to them. Epistolary essays adopt elements that define the genre of the letter—its intimacy, immediacy, and materiality.
Polemical essays are essays that strongly support one side of an argument.
Historical essays draw from historical artifacts and scholars, as well as a writer’s ideas within her or his own historical moment.
Humorous essays, more often than not, focus on a predicament or a situation where something goes wrong. As Aristotle noted, laughing at tragedy may be cathartic for the writer and the audience.
Memoirs recall and meditate on the writer’s past, using that contemplation for self-reflection. A memoir essay must evolve from a writer’s intimate recollections of the past brought together with thoughtful reflections on those memories.
And because understanding what makes a great essay requires that you read great essayists, this course also contains a treasure trove of selections from famous and lesser-known writers. You’ll be introduced to some of the greatest essayists of the ages who have pushed the limits of how essays are defined, including:
Michel de Montaigne, whose 1580 collection Les Essais established the essay as a literary genre
Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele, 18th-century British wits and protégées of Montaigne, who circulated their essays about manners and society in highly popular and somewhat scandalous periodicals
Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American philosopher-poet, who wrote some of the first essays on nature and the environment
Rainer Maria Rilke, an Austrian poet, who created intimate essays through personal letters, often on the topic of what it means to be an artist
Virginia Woolf, an author who is widely considered one of the finest essayists of the 20th century, who wrote episodic pieces which have a dreamlike quality
Mary McCarthy, an American author, critic, and political activist, who used essays to articulate sharply observant and often self-scrutinizing points
You’ll also sample contemporary essayists hailing from diverse backgrounds, such as Naomi Shihab Nye, Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, Barbara Kingsolver, David Sedaris, and Maya Angelou. In addition, you’ll have the unique opportunity to dig into the process of essay writing by looking at drafts of works in progress, including some from Professor Cognard-Black’s own students. Finally, each chapter will give you a chance to put into practice everything you’ve just learned.
The Right and Wrong Ways to Write
As you attempt to start writing your own essay, looking at a blank computer screen or piece of paper might be daunting. Professor Cognard-Black invites you to overcome this common stumbling block by considering that, unlike other forms of writing that are often strictly plotted or outlined, essays create their own forms as they go along. Aristotle called this process inventio or invention. This method means that you explore what the essay wants to say as you draft your piece. Rather than focusing on how precisely you want to form your thoughts into a specific structure on the page, you get to discover what happens as you get the raw material down—and this explosion of ideas and words becomes your first draft. As Professor Cognard-Black puts it, “The purpose of invention—of that first attempt to get your thoughts down on paper and give them a shape—is to explore and to discover what your essay wants to be about.”
The process of invention is specific to each writer, and so with each essay, there’s a certain version of truth or memory that is created. But striving for the truth is essential. Sometimes that truth will reveal flaws in a precious idea or shine a light on the imperfect sides of humanity—people you know, people you care about, even members of your own family—but maintaining the intention of honesty will help you create and sustain a strong ethos or credibility. Keep in mind that your truth is only one version of events; each situation you write about contains many possible truths.
Once the central purpose of each essay you write is clear, you then need a sense of direction as you revise. Opening sentences that preview the place, people, perspective, and purpose of your essays give your reader an invitation to join you on a journey into your chosen subject.
While the essay is a very flexible form, there are mistakes that will weaken your writing, which Professor Cognard-Black explains in depth. Known to rhetorical theorists as logical fallacies, these potential pitfalls are easy to fall into and will ruin your essay’s credibility. They include:
Faulty generalizations: when a writer makes a sweeping comment, reaches a decision based on too little evidence, or makes claims that are impossible to validate
Ad hominem arguments: its literal translation meaning “against the man,” this fallacy occurs when a writer attacks a person, rather than the idea under discussion, and occurs often in American popular culture and politics
Appeals to bandwagonism: when a writer attempts to win readers over to a specific opinion by claiming that it’s the most popular position
Another factor to consider is the length of your essay. While essays don’t necessarily have length requirements, they do tend to cut to the chase. To keep your writing concise, clear, and to the point, Professor Cognard-Black recommends cutting everything you’ve written in half between the first and second draft. If your essay is 6,000 words, cut it to 3,000. Don’t discard the excess copy, but do revisit your edited version after a few days. You may be surprised at how often you don’t need that extra text.
As you examine many types of essays, build a toolbox of abilities to help you polish and perfect your writing, and analyze samples of masterfully composed essays, you’ll find yourself exploring your own memories, opinions and stories in an entirely new way. The essay is, above all else, one of the most profoundly personal outlets for writing.
While the goal of this course is to provide you with fundamental abilities that will improve your essays, the skills you will learn also provide a foundation to develop any writing project you undertake. Becoming a Great Essayist is an unrivalled opportunity to advance your critical and creative thinking skills, enhance your ability to master a strong and persuasive style, and most importantly, allow you to get to know your own inner voice.