BY PHILIP FITZPATRICK
Excellent advice for the Tingting Bilong Mi 2020 Essay Competition
Who can remember the dreaded Monday afternoon announcement, “I want a five hundred word essay on what we have been discussing on my desk by Friday morning, no excuses!”
Essays are the bane of every high school student’s life but what exactly are they?
They come in many forms and can be a few hundred or several thousand words long.
Essays are an odd but specific form of writing. They can range from the serious to the frivolous and can be didactic and moral but should also be informal and flexible and certainly never preach or pontificate.
A good essay doesn’t have to be conclusive or structured logically. It should leave the reader uncertain about how the argument will develop and what is going to be said next.
It also doesn’t have to be conclusive. It can raise an issue and then simply speculate about it. It can canvas facts and evidence without over exerting their authority.
An essay doesn’t have to be strident or contrived and set out arguments in logical order like a lawyer might do in court.
Essays should be more personal, speculating and ruminating as if the author is thinking out aloud. It should appear to be a set of free associations made by an active and cultivated mind.
If that doesn’t sound like what your high school teachers demanded perhaps they didn’t understand exactly what they were asking.
The word essay comes from basic French verb, “essayer”, meaning “to try” or “to attempt”. In the sixteenth century Michel de Montaigne first described his attempts to put his thoughts into writing as essays.
In the twentieth century the English writer and essayist, Aldous Huxley, said that “the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything”.
Within that realm he includes the personal and the autobiographical and the objective and the factual.
At the personal level anecdote and description are important. At the factual and objective level themes and data from which general conclusions can be drawn are important.
The best essays are usually a combination of the above elements but may also include abstractions that don’t directly relate to either personal experience or facts.
Structured and formatted essays, in the sense that your high school teacher meant, are a relatively recent invention. Their main function is to improve the writing skills of students.
In that sense they are a constrained form of the essay chiefly used to judge the mastery and comprehension of students over the particular subject they are studying.
The formality of school essays, while useful in gauging a student’s ability to understand a subject, are necessarily an aberration that can constrain the kind of free-wheeling expression practised and promoted by writers like de Montaigne and Huxley.
If you want to see what a good essay looks like you can go to masters like George Orwell but in the Papua New Guinean context one of the best exponents was the late Francis Nii.
What both George Orwell and Francis Nii excelled at was adding a political context to the form.
Neither of them did this overtly and neither of them engaged in any form of propaganda – although that in itself was a subject they occasionally wrote critically about.
Orwell wrote two hugely popular and influential books late in his career, Animal Farm and 1984, but his greatest writing was done earlier in the form of his essays.
If you want to read a good example try his 1946 essay ‘Why I write’. You can read it by following the link below.
If you want to read an essay by Francis Nii I’d recommend his award winning 2013 essay, ‘If Dekla says Papua New Guinea is Eden, then it is’. You can read it by following the link below.
Alternatively you could read his whole collection by obtaining a copy of Man Bilong Buk: The Francis Nii Collection.
It’s available at Amazon Books at the following link.
If you follow these suggestions you will discover that reading essays is a delightful pastime and, funnily enough, entirely different to what you might have experienced at school.