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But a writer’s presence in the essay can both provide an arc to the essay and guide the reader’s journey through a particular subject.
Without change, she says, an essay is just something that happened, a topic instead of a story.
Change can come through earth-shattering revelation—or, as Boggs shows, through quiet, even tentative steps.
“It’s spring when I realize that I may never have children,” she writes, “and around that time the thirteen-year cicadas return, burrowing out of neat, round holes in the ground to shed their larval shells, sprout wings, and fly to the treetops, filling the air with the sound of their singular purpose: reproduction.” This first sentence leaves the reader wondering what’s brought the narrator to this moment.
And with it, Boggs also sets up the essay’s broader sweep of reproduction across the animal kingdom, from reproductive submission in cooperative marmoset communities to Jamani, a pregnant gorilla that is part of a captive breeding program at the North Carolina Zoo.
Whether big or small, a writer can structure an essay by starting with a problem or question, explaining how it came about, and then calling out the different points that highlight gradual evolution.
Strauss says readers keep reading because of the dramatic tension: ?
I think they’re probably right—except that I’ve never been exactly sure what an essay is.
When I think essay, I think five plodding paragraphs about the use of light as a symbol in Or I imagine much more experienced, serious writers picking up their pens, like Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century Frenchman who spent most of his career honing some of the earliest examples of the form. So I asked other writers and editors for their thoughts about what essays are, and what makes good ones work.
“An essay can have just as much factual information, but it’s based around this unique, personal, internal logic,” says Hopson, who teaches a science essay course to graduate students in the University of California, Santa Cruz’s Science Communication program.
Bringing this personal, internal logic to an idea can open up previously unexplored territory for readers—and for writers as well.