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.

Blog posts or essays?

Between my work, traveling back to home and frequent power cuts, my blogging hasn’t been very regular recently. I haven’t been suffering from any sort of writer’s block, in fact I have a list of about 7-8 topics that I’d like to write about. However there has been one thing that has kept bothering me for quite some time: the size of my postings. I’ve been trying to use this blog as a way to tell the world about the things that I learn and discover as I pursue my career as a computer science student. However many of the things that I deal with daily and which I think about are quite complex and takes long discussion to get everything together. At the same time I would like to be able to post new things everyday or at least every alternate day. Often these two things don’t really go together add being an avid reader myself, I understand that it can be very trying to read something long on a topic like computer science. Hence the question: do I write small compact blog posts on a regular basis, or do I write longer essay-style posts where I can talk at length about the topic?

I’ve been looking at some of my favorite technology oriented bloggers to possible solutions to my dilemma. My favorite bloggers is Steve Yegge, who without fail writes long, sometimes rambling, but always interesting essays on an approximately bimonthly basis. While I find his essays thoroughly entertaining, they are a bit too big for something that I would want to write. More importantly, I certainly want to post more regularly than twice a month. Paul Graham’s essays are somewhat shorter, but are also published at a similar frequencies. Again, brilliant, but not quite what I’m aiming for.

Perhaps the closest to what I’m acheiving would be Jeff Atwood’s Coding Horror. Atwood posts regularly (almost everyday) and his posts are of a good length, long enough to make you feel a sense of actually reading something worthwhile, while being short enough that you don’t need to set apart an entire hour to go through them. Though occasionally he does err on the side of excess, they are nowhere as long as Yegge’s posts.

Of course, length isn’t a separate consideration in itself. It’s closely tied to the content of what I write. Recently I’ve been writing more from a software engineering standpoint, though I would like to write posts of a slightly more theoretical nature (especially since I’m getting increasingly interested in compilers and programming languages). While I’m willing to accept that such topics might require slightly lengthier posts, I really don’t want to turn my posts into mini-theses.

Long blog posts also mean longer time investments on my part, something that is a very important consideration because of the heavy course load I plan on taking. Perhaps the best way for me to decide the issue is to think about how much time I would be willing to invest on a daily basis. On average a blog post right now takes me about 40 minutes to one hour to write. I think that it is a good amount of time for me to spend write now. Considering my typing speed, that translates to about 1000 thousands, even considering looking up pertinent links and confirming information. 1000 words might be pushing it a bit, (that’s about one average sized college paper), but much less would probably be too small for me to clearly say everything. 800 to 1000 words seems like a decent size from what I’ve been reading. I think a good idea would be to to have a number of sections which are more or less self-contained in terms of content.

I’m going to trying to work on trying to control my size and structure. However at the same time, my primary concern will be content, so even if I need to write longer or shorter posts to give a coherent, well paced account of everything I need to say, so be it. I’m sure my readers read other tech blogs, so any comments as to what you prefer would be good very much appreciated.