An essay, like any piece of writing, exists at multiple levels of resolution, simultaneously.
First is the selection of the word.
Second is the crafting of the sentence.
Each word should be precisely the right word, in the right location in each sentence.
The sentence itself should present a thought, part of the idea expressed in the paragraph, in a grammatically correct manner.
Each sentence should be properly arranged and sequenced inside a paragraph, the third level of resolution.
As a rule of thumb, a paragraph should be made up of at least 10 sentences or 100 words.
This might be regarded as a stupid rule, because it is arbitrary. However, you should let it guide you, until you know better. You have very little right to break the rules, until you have mastered them.
Here’s a little story to illustrate that idea, taken in part from a document called the Codex Bezae.
❝ Christ is walking down the road on the Sabbath, when good Jews of that time were not supposed to work. In the ditch, he sees a shepherd, trying to rescue a sheep from a hole that it has fallen into. It is very hot and, clearly, the sheep will not be in very good shape if it spends a whole day in the desert sun. On the other hand, it is the Sabbath. Christ looks at the shepherd and says, “Man, if indeed thou knowest what thou doest, thou art blessed: but if thou knowest not, thou art cursed, and a transgressor of the law.” Then he walks on down the road. 在一个安息日里基督在路上走着，犹太人在安息日中不应当工作。在一条深沟里，基督看见一个牧羊人试图救出一个掉进洞的绵羊。天气很热，显然，如果绵羊一整天都暴晒在沙漠的阳光下，一定会被晒死。另一方面，这天是安息日，不允许工作。基督看着牧羊人说：“老兄，如果你确实知道自己的所作所为，你就有福了；但如果你不知道，你就会受诅咒，成为违犯律法者。”说完，他沿着道路离开了。 ❞
❝ 这个故事想表达的是：安息日的存在是有原因的。否则人们会一直工作。那样的话，他们将永远处于不快乐和疲惫中。人们将互相竞争至死。 The point is this: There is a rest day for a reason. Otherwise people would work all the time. Then they would be chronically unhappy and exhausted. They would compete each other to death. 因此，如果让人人都可以休息的时间，那就都休息，不要违反规则。 So if it’s time for everybody to rest, then rest, and don’t be breaking the rule. 但是，当几分钟的举手之劳的工作就可以救起一只可能会被太阳晒死的羊，不去做似乎也不好。 However, it is also not good to let a sheep die in the hot sun, when a few minutes of labor might save it. ❞
So, if you are respectful of the rule, and conscious of its importance, and realize that it serves as a bulwark against the chaos of the unknown, and you still decide to break it, carefully, because the particularities of the circumstances demand it – well, then, more power to you.
If you are just a careless, ignorant, antisocial narcissist instead, however, then look out.
You break a rule at your peril, whether you know it or not.
Rules are there for a reason. You are only allowed to break them if you are a master. If you’re not a master, don’t confuse your ignorance with creativity or style.
Writing that follows the rules is easier for readers, because they know roughly what to expect.
So rules are conventions. Like all conventions, they are sometimes sub-optimal. But not very often.
So, to begin with, use the conventions. For example, aim to make your paragraphs about 10 sentences or 100 words long.
A paragraph should present a single idea, using multiple sentences. If you can’t think up 100 words to say about your idea, it’s probably not a very good idea, or you need to think more about it.
If your paragraph is rambling on for 300 words, or more, it’s possible that it has more than one idea in it, and should be broken up.
All of the paragraphs have to be arranged in a logical progression, from the beginning of the essay to the end. This is the fourth level of resolution.
Perhaps the most important step in writing an essay is getting the paragraphs in proper order. Each of them is a stepping stone to your essay’s final destination.
The fifth level of resolution is the essay, as a whole.
Every element of an essay can be correct, each word, sentence, and paragraph – even the paragraph order – and the essay can still fail, because it is just not interesting or important.
It is very hard for competent but uninspired writers to understand this kind of failure, because a critic cannot merely point it out.
There is no answer to their question, “exactly where did I make a mistake?” Such an essay is just not good.
An essay without originality or creativity might fall into this category.
Sometimes a creative person, who is not technically proficient as a writer, can make the opposite mistake: their word choice is poor, their sentences badly constructed and poorly organized within their paragraphs, their paragraphs in no intelligible relationship to one another – and yet the essay as a whole can succeed, because there are valuable thoughts trapped within it, wishing desperately to find expression.
You might think that there could not possibly be anything more to an essay than these five levels of resolution or analysis, but you would be wrong.
This is something that was first noticed, perhaps, by those otherwise entirely reprehensible and destructive scholars known as post-modernists.
An essay necessarily exists within a context of interpretation, made up of the reader (level six), and the culture that the reader is embedded in (level seven), which is made up in part of the assumptions that he or she will bring to the essay.
Levels six and seven have deep roots in biology and culture.
You might think, “Why do I need to know this?” but if you don’t you are not considering your audience, and that’s a mistake.
Part of the purpose of the essay is to set your mind straight, but the other part, equally important, is to communicate with an audience.
For the essay to succeed, brilliantly, it has to work at all of these levels of resolution simultaneously. That is very difficult, but it is in that difficulty that the value of the act of writing exists.
This is not all that has to be properly managed when you write an essay.
You should also strive for brevity, which is concise and efficient expression, as well as beauty, which is the melodic or poetic aspect of your language (at all the requisite levels of analysis).
Finally, you should not be bored, or boring. If you are bored while writing, then, most importantly, you are doing it wrong, and you will also bore your reader.
Think of it this way: you get bored for a reason, and sometimes for a good reason. You may be bored while writing your essay because you are actually lying to yourself in a very deep way about what you are doing and why you are doing it.
Your mind, independent of your ego, cannot be hoodwinked into attending to something that you think is uninteresting or useless.
It will automatically regard such a thing as unworthy of attention, and make you bored by it.
If you are bored by your essay, you have either chosen the wrong topic (one which makes no difference to you and, in all likelihood, to anyone else) or you are approaching a good topic in a substandard manner.
Perhaps you are resentful about having to write the essay, or afraid of its reception, or lazy, or ignorant, or unduly and arrogantly skeptical, or something of the kind.
You have to place yourself in the correct state of mind to write properly.
That state of mind is partly aesthetic.
You have to be trying to produce something of worth, beauty and elegance. If you think that is ridiculous, then you are far too stupid at the moment to write properly.
You need to meditate long and hard on why you would dare presume that worth, beauty and elegance are unworthy of your pursuit. Do you plan to settle for ugly and uncouth? Do you want to destroy, instead of build?
You must choose a topic that is important to you. This should be formulated as a question that you want to answer.
This is arguably the hardest part of writing an essay: choosing the proper question.
Perhaps your instructor has provided you with a list of topics, and you think you are off the hook as a consequence.
You’re not. You still have to determine how to write about one of those topics in a manner that is compelling to you. It’s a moral, spiritual endeavour.
If you properly identify something of interest to you, then you have put yourself in alignment with the deeper levels of your psyche, your spirit.
If these deeper levels do not want or need an answer to the question you have posed, you will not possibly be interested in it.
So the fact of your interest is evidence of the importance of the topic.
You, or some part of you, needs the answer – and such needs can be deep enough so that life itself can depend upon them.
Someone desperate, for example, might find the question “why live?” of extreme interest, and absolutely require an answer that makes life’s suffering worth bearing.
It is not necessary to ensure that every question you try or essay to answer of that level of importance, but you should not waste your time with ideas that do not grip you.
So, the proper attitude is interested and aesthetically sensitive.
Having said all that, here is something to remember: finished beats perfect.
Most people fail a class or an assignment or a work project not because they write badly, and geta D’s or F’s, but because they don’t write at all, and get zeroes.
Zeroes are very bad. They are the black holes of numbers.
Zeroes make you fail. Zeroes ruin your life. Essays handed in, no matter how badly written, can usually get you at least a C.