I have never written a great essay. I’ve written good essays. I’ve written interesting essays. I’ve written A+ essays and “can I use this as an example for the rest of the class” essays. I’ve written no red marks and paragraphs of positive critique essays. And I’ve written terrible, two in the morning, “I expected more from you”, something along the lines of what you’re reading right now essays. But I have never written a great essay because I have only ever written graded essays.
A great essay is one that recognizes its purpose, encompasses a strong thesis in a concise form, and addresses its question in an interesting and thought-provoking manner. It’s well constructed, but doesn’t bind itself to a fill-in-the-blank rubric or structure. A great essay is elegant and precise; it pushes boundaries, but stays comfortably within conventions. It’s also none of those things. A great essay isn’t measurable by standard means.
The graded essay must, by its very nature and purpose, follow a set of guidelines. There can be no question between the teacher and student about what demands must be met in order to receive the reward of a good grade. Charts and grading rubrics are handed out with the assignment with numbers adding up along the side to make the score. And with that grading rubric comes a contract between teacher and student: so long as the student is able to check off all the boxes to a satisfactory degree, the teacher will give them a good grade and the assignment will never be mentioned again.
A great essay can’t be forged out of these conditions. The writer’s motivation is weak, their interest is questionable, and the essay itself is condemned to be forgotten. The student, who is also being bogged down by a multitude of other number one priorities, will do the least amount of work that they can get away with and still get a good grade. There is no reason to do otherwise as the grade is the only vested interest they have in writing this paper, and once they’ve turned it in, the problem is out of their hands. What point is there in slaving over multiple drafts of a semi-original thesis when the paper will be thrown away or deleted from a hard drive in a few weeks time?
My first essay writing class was in fifth grade. Of course my class and I had already been taught how to write paragraphs by stringing sentences of a similar subject together, but we were all grown up now at ten years old and it was time for us to string five of those paragraphs into what our teacher was calling an essay. She showed us a poster of a cartoon sandwich, the layers of which had been suspended in mid-air so that the observer would be better able to examine its contents.
Our teacher pointed out that the items on this sandwich were labeled, not with “lettuce” or “baloney”, but rather with “introduction” and “body paragraph”. She explained that this was how an essay was made: bread then tomato then lettuce then baloney then bread again. No one would put their baloney on top of their bread, nor would anyone leave out the bread on the bottom; an essay with only lettuce is still technically an essay, but probably not a very good one, and an essay cannot live on bread alone. This is how we were to write our essays, scrawled out on wide ruled notebook paper using the sandwiches our parents packed us for lunch as our guide. And we did that all the way through to high school.
There came a point in one of my middle school English classes that someone decided that it would be a good idea to actually teach us how to write an academic paper. We could still flirt with the five paragraph essay, but the new goal was to broaden our horizons by narrowing our focus; it was time to work on the thesis.