Seamus Heaney, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, once wrote a poem comparing the work of writing with manual labour. In the poem “Digging,” he describes how his Irish ancestors have always dug for potatoes and have found a sense of fulfilment in such backbreaking work. Although Heaney savours the smells and sounds of the earth, he prefers to write poems:
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it. (25-31)
Heaney realizes that by making poetry his vocation he is breaking with family tradition. He himself is cutting through “living roots” (27).
“Digging” expresses an anxiety many of us feel. What is the value of immersing ourselves in a world of words and ideas? Is there not more satisfaction in honest work than in staring at a screen for an hour, wondering how to express ourselves? Should we feel guilty if the “pen rests” (30) and we don’t know what to write?
Heaney suggests that it is okay to take our time. Writing is a slow process, and when we rush it the results are often predictable.
That’s why before we talk about the nuts and bolts of essay writing it’s good to have the proper mindset. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, this introduction took over an hour to write.
What is an essay?
The word essay is derived from the French verb essayer, which means to try. In other words, an essay is a first attempt at something. It’s not the final word and you can always change your mind about what you’ve written. If you do, you simply write another essay.
This also means that an essay doesn’t have to solve all the world’s problems. You can zoom in to the one specific question that interests you. If someone shares your concerns they will read your work; if not, they’ll move on. Not everyone cares about the Spanish Civil War or the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine, and though your prose should be accessible, you do not need to come up with some lesson or moral that applies to everyone. So make your subject matter your primary focus.
In high-school, a lot of students get taught the five paragraph model, where every essay has an introduction, three main points, and a conclusion.
We don’t believe in such a rigid structure. Ideas are fluid and your essay structure needs to be adaptable. In fact, a good essay structure is organic: it grows and branches out like a tree. And every tree looks a little different from the next.
So be prepared to be flexible, to adapt the rules to your own needs. If you avoid short cuts you will write much better essays.
Writing is one of the most difficult things to master, but at the same time everyone can do it. As long as you accept the challenge and do your best, your writing will improve. To back up this claim we could give you a money back guarantee, but then this website is already free.
Heaney, Seamus. “Digging.” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/47555.