At the book launch party last week for Mindfire, I gave a short talk. Someone asked about the new book, and essays, and I explained how it is my favorite form.
What I think he was getting at – and this is not confirmed by the time of posting – is that many bloggers write and ramble. They toss their ideas out there online and add to the content overload that we experience every time we log into Facebook or check our stream on Twitter. And the process of writing an essay requires restraint. It requires you to think and process and prove what you want to say before you throw it out there.
And the 500-word limit means you need to get to your point. Fast. It’s a reflection of the 140-character, enlighten us, but make it quick, world that we live in. If you can’t get to your point right away, then you shouldn’t even bother.
She makes some other excellent points, so you should read her full post.
For a long time I believed an essay was rigidly defined as what I was taught in college. I’ve learned since an essay is whatever I as a writer say it is. Form is just a bag to put things in. If you can find people who keep reading what you’re writing, don’t worry much about form. It’s mostly English majors who are struggling to write much themselves who argue much about form. And if you want to be all factual about it, the history of the essay points back to Montaigne, who followed none of the standard instructions English professors (many of whom can’t write their way out of a paper bag) pretend are universal law.
The rub is that good writing must be concise without being shallow. Much of what passes as brevity (twitter, facebook and the web) is definitely short, but also empty. Just because you use few words doesn’t guarantee you have anything interesting to say, nor that you are saying it well.
500 or 1000 words is an intellectual sprint. The challenge of effectively taking on a big topic in such a short space demands thinking, editing, style and courage, all of which I need to practice as a writer. Good blog posts are indistinguishable to me from a good essay. Once the writer has brought me happily into their world, form fades away.