As a Keystone Professional Tutor I spend a large amount of my time working with students on essay writing. The essay is a constant in the progression between different schools and university. And the skills it inculcates, I suggest, make the ultimate transition to adult life smoother than it might otherwise be.
First comes the prep school composition, to be honed for 11+ or 13+ exams: the description of a mysterious gentleman, or of a time when we were afraid. Then, the more persuasive, analytical writing, on authors’ motives, or why Henry VII won the War of the Roses. After this, the awkward period, when proper essay writing is put on hold for the tickboxing of most GCSE papers, to be picked up again for some A Level papers, the Pre-U, the IB and undergraduate degrees.
To the cynic, essay writing is like practising geometry or learning third declension Latin nouns: a purposeless task, an English quirk and something that teaches us nothing about ‘the real world’ (whatever that may be). I will not comment on Mathematics or classical languages (though I am sure others could argue well for the relevance of both), but I will say that I believe that essay writing is a relevant and transferable skill.
Essay writing allows us to organise our thoughts and to distinguish the important from the unimportant. When I now have an important decision to make, I sit down and write about it in the format that I have developed through school and university. That is, I write myself an essay.
If the essay is the method, the means are words. Perfecting essay writing allows us to sharpen our knowledge and use of words. In this way, we become better at converting our thoughts into words. Hugh Trevor-Roper, the historian, put this more eloquently than I could when he wrote to his stepson in 1960, who was then at Eton and having a pretty rough time. “If in doubt, if in depression, if in anxiety, say so without fear”, he said. “We have invented language, refined it so that it can express even the subtlest thought, even the obscurest sensations; why then should we not use it, and dissolve difficulties by articulating them?”
So what does a good essay look like? The answer is simpler than some claim and helps us to dispel the myth that we are either good at essay writing or we are not. A good essay is a body of words organised coherently so as to convey a message, which is precise and clear. Above all, its purpose is accessible: it answers a question or makes a valuable point. The worst essays are those that ramble, sit on the fence or seem insular.
If this is the outcome, then what is the route? The approach that I teach for essay writing is broadly the same, regardless of whether I am working with a student on 11+ or Oxbridge entrance preparation. First, the essay must be planned rigorously: empty your mind of all thoughts, organize them, and then summarise your essay in a sentence. Only then should you proceed to the second step: writing. And this should be done clearly, straightforwardly and without airs. Words should be chosen according to their meaning, and not anything else.
My historical knowledge, such as it is, lies mainly in the twentieth century. To my mind, the years after 1900 house three masters of the essay: Hugh Trevor-Roper, who I have already mentioned, and his contemporaries, A.J.P. Taylor and George Orwell. All three of these authors wrote with clarity and precision: all three, incidentally, whilst avoiding writing with pretension, lived pretentiously and were full of self-importance. I advise all my students, at all levels, to read these authors, and to try and follow their writing styles. But not more than this!
Of these three, Orwell is the greatest. In 1946 he wrote my favourite essay, Politics and the English Language, in which he deplored how contemporary “prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.” The solution, he said (with typical imperiousness), was to follow his five rules: never use a figure of speech you are used to seeing in print; never use a long word where a short one functions; if a word can be cut, then cut it; never use the passive where you can use the active; and never use a foreign, scientific or jargon word where an everyday equivalent will do.
Orwell also inserted a sixth rule, which was by far the most important, and which I leave you with, as an addendum to the above: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”