But say you want to write an essay about something and you don’t yet know how transformation fits into your topic.
Strauss suggests exploring what’s drawn you to the idea, rambling around what associations you bring to it, and seeing what bubbles up from there.
Or at least someone who took things like rhetoric and comp. One of my favorite descriptions of the form comes from Janet Hopson, a co-founder of and the inaugural columnist of the magazine’s Natural Acts column.
In some ways, she says, the lines are blurry between essays and feature stories. Some features include the writer’s own experience, use lyrical language, or support an argument; an essay can brim with facts, quote other people, and the first-person writer can vanish behind a screen of words.
A writer can also create the tension and release that the arc of transformation brings, without getting too personal.
If you can ratchet up the drama—setting up a problem, and making the essay the movement toward a solution—a reader will remain interested. 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.Then in the final graphs, Boggs notes that the cicadas have stopped singing.“The silence is startling at first—I step outside each morning expecting to hear that seashell sound—but it’s also a relief. Transformation is critical to the success of a personal essay, says Evelyn Strauss, a writer and editor who teaches the UCSC essay course in alternating years.Although it’s the story of one couple, the writer bridges the personal and the universal, relating not only a special wedding day but the joys and challenges faced by anyone getting married, along with insights into life in the rural West.Combining the personal and the universal in an essay that’s about science can give readers a more intimate connection to science and its process, a connection that’s often hard to create in a news story, or even a feature.“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.For those already writing about science, an essay can be a way of stepping into an unfamiliar field, whether it’s fluid dynamics or immunology, and exploring the most personally compelling facets.Essays are, in fact, what got Richard Panek, a journalist and fiction writer, into writing about science.