On Essays

I’ve been thinking about essays on and off for the past few days. It all started when I was in the process of updating my static HTML website that I call Basu:shr. I have a section called essays which is currently populated mostly with papers that I wrote for various courses at college. Looking over some of my older work I realized that I didn’t really write longer pieces anymore. This blog is my primary writing activity at the moment and most of my posts are in the 700 to 1000 word range. I’m perfectly happy writing short articles because I’ve always admired brevity and conciseness (which is why I like Twitter as well). But at the same time, I’m slightly worried that I might be losing the ability of writing longer, more detailed pieces.

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

As I’ve pondered before, life is short and it takes a fair amount of dedicated effort and time to come up with something beautiful and useful. With the rise of the Internet and instantaneous communications, we’re becoming a culture that is very much used to continuous streams of small information packets. The essay is becoming a holdover from the old days when having long periods of times to do nothing but sit and read was common. However, there are a number of really good essayists alive today, and a lot of them are on the Internet. There’s Paul Graham, whose essays are practically the stuff of legend for programmers. There is also Steve Yegge who seems to have retired, but left behind a fairly large collection of essay-length material (including an article on why you should write a blog). Outside the Internet there is Warren Buffet who has written long detailed letters to shareholders for the last 32 years each of which is an education in and of itself (and I can’t help but wonder how many shareholders actually read through them all).

I don’t think I’m making a mistake when I say that the essay is still alive and well today, albeit in somewhat modified forms. But the fact remains that putting out something of such length and depth takes up a lot of time and energy (not to mention the countless hours that go into accumulating the knowledge and organizing the thoughts that must flow into such a work). In many ways, writing an essay is similar to a software project. There is planning and preparation that must happen upfront, but nothing is really for certain until you sit down and start writing. Writing a good essay that other people will want to read and tell their friends about is no easier than writing good software that others will want to use.

Blog meet Essay

The blog and the essay are fundamentally different things. A blog is a magazine compared to an essay’s book. The blog as a format is great for some things: without easy blogging I probably wouldn’t be writing at all. But the rise of blogs (and accompanying software) has left the long form essay in the dark. You could simply write long articles and put them on your blog like Steve Yegge. But reverse chronological ordering really isn’t the best format for a collection of essays. For small numbers, a simple list of titles, maybe with a blurb is probably the best. Once you get to a larger number (Paul Graham for example), a simple list doesn’t cut it any more.

There is also the actual writing experience. Whenever you write a longer piece over the course of many days, you start to go back and visit the old parts. Part of it is for editing, but you also want to read what you’ve read before so that you know you’re keeping your essay coherent. Blog software doesn’t easily let you do this. I know WordPress stores revisions, but there doesn’t seem to be an easy, upfront way to see diffs of different versions against each other. I suppose a wiki could be better as an essay platform. Dokuwiki has excellent visual diff function and Writeboard also lets you compare versions.

Perhaps we do need some sort of specialized software for writing essays. Something that puts drafting editing at the center as opposed to at the edges. Personally I’ve been using Emacs with Git to get some of the same result, but I would really like to see a webapp that can do something like that. After all, there isn’t much use in writing an essay if no one is going to read it (and how better to get people to read it than to put it out on the Internet).

I, Essayist

Even though there may be no quick-and-easy publishing solution like WordPress for essays, writing an essay is far less dependent on tech tools than most other things today. Like I said before, Emacs and Git do a fairly good job together. I would like to be able to put all my drafts online with some sort of commenting system so that people can see the evolution of my essays, but I’ll settle for just being able to show a final product.

Separate from showing the essay is the mental exercise of actually sitting down and writing the essay (and then revising and editing). That’s something that I’ll have to get back into the habit of doing and will probably take time. Subject matter is also an issue, but a good starting point would be to simply expand on the themes that I cover in this blog, while making sure that people who read my blog can read my essays without getting bored (and vice versa). Expect my first essay to be on essays, sometime in the next few weeks.

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