Why do we teach essay-writing? Do we?

In teaching students the art of writing an essay, we have gone from the thesis to the thoughtless, from a rigorously argued, tightly reasoned, carefully worded work of rhetoric to a loose and lazy stream of consciousness that flows nowhere.

The short thesis, which is not really an essay, but is generally considered as the classic essay form, goes like this: Five paragraphs. State the thesis in the first paragraph. Give three supporting paragraphs. Then, in the final paragraph, repeat the thesis statement, worded slightly differently, giving the impression to the reader that you have demonstrated it.

Or to put it more plainly:

First paragraph: This is what I’m going to say.
Second paragraph: Now I’m saying it.
Third paragraph: I’m saying it again.
Fourth paragraph: I’m saying it again.
Fifth paragraph: This is what I just said.

It is a good exercise in clear thinking, making an argument, giving evidence to support it, and putting a modicum of reason to work. Every student should learn the form, practice it and master it. They should be able to do this by the time they are high school freshmen. Then they should learn how to write an essay. Because the short thesis is not an essay. It is a form of torture. Not for the person who has to write it but for the person who has to read it. Reading the short thesis is similar to being beaten over the head repeatedly with a stick, the only difference being that being beaten over the head with a stick is not as boring as reading a short thesis.

A generation or two ago, our writing teachers recognized the boringness of the short thesis, and so they abandoned it all together. But they have also neglected to teach the art of the essay. Instead, they now teach writing by telling the student something like this: “Here is a blank piece of paper (or, I suppose, a blank screen). Put words on it. Write what you feel. Never mind form or function. Only mind what comes into your mind. Assertions are as good as facts. Associations are even better. Conclusions are close-minded. Punctuation is optional.”

The problem with the new approach is that it also inflicts pain on the reader. It is not the sharp pain of a pointed thesis, but the dull pain of pointlessness. It is also unreadable. And, for the most part, unread.

So how can we reel the essay back in?

We have to start by starting over and bringing back the short thesis. We still need to take students through that exercise of making a point and being persuasive about it, but then we have to teach them how to write an essay, an essay that a reader will not only find convincing, that will keep their attention, and be a delight to read.

And that is where we bring in the big gun. G.K. Chesterton.

Chesterton was one of the most gifted essayists of all time. He wrote over 5,000 essays, and virtually every one of them grabbed readers and wouldn’t let them go. They still have that effect.

Why are his essays so good? Because he is a mystery writer. He writes an essay the same way he writes a mystery story. A good mystery gets your attention immediately and holds it. It gives you lots of interesting information, all of which keeps you wondering. Then it shocks you with an ending that you do not expect, even though it was sitting there staring at you. It leaves the pleasant and refreshing sensation that comes with the sudden transition from ignorance to knowledge.

The ideal essay should be written using the same three elements of the mystery story: the corpse, the clues, the killer. Or to put it another way: the hook, the string, the catch. Or: the question, the partial answers, the complete answer.

The first sentence of an essay is the all-important hook. It needs to be spectacular. Here is the opening line of one of Chesterton’s most famous essays:

“Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if only one had a coloured pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling.”

It instantly intrigues you with a vivid and unusual image. But notice how it starts you off in one direction, and suddenly startles you with an unexpected twist—in just the first sentence. You must read on. Where is he taking you? You want to find out. You want to go there.

The strength of the essay, which is what distinguishes it from the short thesis, is also its weakness—and its danger. It is the wonderful meandering. It is what happens between the beginning and the end. It is not, and cannot be a straight path. It is what makes an essay interesting, where we find creativity and beauty and all the things that fascinate us, but also where we can get lost, in some cases, irretrievably.

Just as in a detective story there are lots of clues that appear to lead to a dead end and we begin to lose hope that the mystery will be solved, the essay can take us down a lot of scenic side roads that don’t appear to be going anywhere. But done right and done well, these make the conclusion all be more jolting and satisfying.

Consider Chesterton’s essay, “The Twelve Men.” It’s about jury duty. After describing all the things going on in a courtroom, Chesterton, as a member of the jury, contemplates how the judge and lawyers, impressive in their trained capacity, seem to have overlooked the reality that a human being is on trial. Then he concludes:

Our civilisation has decided, and very justly decided, that determining the guilt or innocence of men is a thing too important to be trusted to trained men. If it wishes for light upon that awful matter, it asks men who know no more law than I know, but who can feel the things that I felt in the jury box. When it wants a library catalogued, or the solar system discovered, or any trifle of that kind it uses up its specialists. But when it wishes anything done which is really serious, it collects twelve of the ordinary men standing round. The same thing was done, if I remember right, by the Founder of Christianity.

Didn’t see that coming.

The only thing more important than the first sentence of an essay is the last sentence. The same thing can be said, I think, of the cosmos.

DALE AHLQUIST is President of the American Chesterton Society, editor of Gilbert!, host of the EWTN series The Apostle of Common Sense, and chairman of the Chesterton Schools Network.