The Essay: More Than Just a Homework Assignment

When you hear the word, “Essay,” does a homework assignment immediately come to mind? Even if you were given a wide choice of potential subjects, an essay was still something you were required to do. It was work in the worst sense: drudgery. Perhaps it’s time to start thinking of essays as an opportunity to think deeply about a topic you’re interested in, and in the process, improve your writing skills.

One advantage of writing an essay, is it prepares you for working on larger projects. If you find the thought of starting a four hundred page novel or non-fiction book intimidating, writing an essay is a good place to start. You often hear writers talk about getting into “the flow,” when they become so absorbed in their art that time seems to stand still and there is no limit to their creativity. Once you experience “the flow,” the larger projects won’t appear so frightening; instead you’ll have to set time limits on how long you’re going to write at each sitting.

Another benefit of writing essays is it forces you to focus. Whether you’re writing an essay to submit to a newspaper or literary journal, you’ll have to stay within a specified word limit. Since brevity is key, you’ll have to carefully choose your words. It’s an excellent tool for learning how to edit your own writing, as you start to recognize the difference between sentences and paragraphs essential for a coherent argument, and those which can be deleted.

Have you ever had the experience of listening to a political speech, a commencement address or a sermon, and feel as if the speaker made all the important points he had to make in the first ten minutes, but is still talking thirty minutes later? That’s why it’s important to read through an essay several times before submitting it to an editor; making sure your writing is tight. A common error is to use the same word over and over again: It was a really intense storm, the wind was really strong, and the waves crashing on the shoreline were really big. Repetitive words are distracting for a reader, and it only takes a moment to look up alternative words in a thesaurus.

One more reason to write essays: It’s a way to introduce yourself to editors, and the readers who enjoy their publications. If you haven’t had any success pitching articles or short stories to magazines and literary journals, check and see if the publications accept essay submissions. A published essay is a valid writing credit with your byline on the page. I recently submitted an essay to a major newspaper. If it’s accepted, then my essay will be available to thousands of readers. If it’s rejected, at least I’ve made contact with the editors of a national newspaper, and who knows where that may lead.

Is there a newspaper, magazine or literary journal that you’ve always wanted to be published in? Why not take a few minutes and see if they publish essays? You never know, it could be the opening you’ve been looking for.

Copyright © 2022 by J. Paul Cooper