What Makes a Good Essay?

by Stephanie Whetstone

The deadline for this year’s Princeton Writes Prize Staff Essay Contest has been set (March 1, 2020)! We hope you are already hard at work polishing your prose, but in case you are struggling to get started, let’s consider what makes a “good” essay.

Dictionary.com defines the essay as “a short literary composition on a particular theme or subject, usually in prose and generally analytic, speculative, or interpretative.” This leaves a lot of room for creativity. For a personal essay, focus on the personal part. Why are you writing about this subject? Why now? How does your experience connect with your audience’s? A personal essay is not self-indulgent; rather, it is a means of connecting with others through the common experience of being human.

Essays are often written from a first-person point of view and allow the reader to get inside the author’s thoughts and feelings. They may also connect the audience to broader issues. But who is your audience? For our contest, imagine your audience is everyone in the Princeton community.

The winners of the Princeton Writes Prize have written about New South, travels in Japan, a timeworn stone step, and a dining room table. None of these subjects is inherently gripping, but they became so when connected to the writer’s thoughtful, heartfelt experience.

Write as specifically as you can about what is important to you, what excites you, what connects you to the world, or what you can’t seem to get off your mind. So how do you start? Think about your purpose: is it to entertain, to explain, to argue, to compare, or to reveal? It can also be a combination of these things.

At Princeton, we are lucky to have one of the great essay writers of our time, John McPhee, on faculty. In his wonderful essay, “Searching for Marvin Gardens,” McPhee has a few stories going at once: the “real time” experience of playing monopoly with a friend, his walk through the streets of Atlantic City, the history of the creation of the game of Monopoly, and a commentary about the economic and social realities of the time in which the essay was written. It begins:

“Go. I roll the dice—a six and a two. Through the air I move my token, the flatiron, to Vermont Avenue, where dog packs range.

“The dogs are moving (some are limping) through ruins, rubble, fire dam­age, open garbage. Doorways are gone. Lath is visible in the crumbling walls of the buildings. The street sparkles with shattered glass. I have never seen, anywhere, so many broken windows. A sign—”Slow, Children at Play”—has been bent backward by an automobile. At the farmhouse, the dogs turn up Pacific and disappear.”

The primary action puts the reader immediately into the world the writer has created and follows “characters” through a plot. The connecting paragraphs provide context and place the experience in the broader world. You may want to tell your story straight through or, like McPhee, stray from a linear structure—not just beginning, middle, end—moving back and forth in time.

Begin your story at the last possible moment you can without losing important information. If you are writing about the birth of a child, for example, you might want to start in the hospital in the midst of labor, rather than months before.

To shift in time, make sure you have an object or experience to “trigger” the shift, such as McPhee’s dogs. You need not be as accomplished as he to write your own essay, but reading his work and the work of other writers can provide guidance and inspiration.

Remember that an essay is a story, so even though it is nonfiction, it will benefit from the elements of a story: characters, plot, setting, dialogue, point of view, and tone. Is your story funny, sad, contemplative, nostalgic, magical, or a combination of these?

Your job as a writer is to help the reader imagine what you see in your mind’s eye. That requires sensory detail. Be sure to write about sounds, sights, smells, textures, and tastes. Remember, too, that your work will be read by a wide audience, so you need to determine how much of yourself and your intimate experience you are comfortable sharing.

Another great Princeton writer, Joyce Carol Oates, writes with exquisite sensory detail in her essay, “They All Just Went Away.”

“To push open a door into such silence: the absolute emptiness of a house whose occupants have departed. Often, the crack of broken glass underfoot. A startled buzzing of flies, hornets. The slithering, ticklish sensation of a garter snake crawling across floorboards.

“Left behind, as if in haste, were remnants of a lost household. A broken toy on the floor, a baby’s bottle. A rain-soaked sofa, looking as if it had been gutted with a hunter’s skilled knife. Strips of wallpaper like shredded skin. Smashed crockery, piles of tin cans; soda, beer, whiskey bottles. An icebox, its door yawning open. Once, on a counter, a dirt-stiffened rag that, unfolded like precious cloth, revealed itself to be a woman’s cheaply glamorous “see-through” blouse, threaded with glitter-strips of gold.”

No matter what you choose to write about, forgive your first draft if it’s terrible. You will improve it in the editing. And finally, read each draft aloud: tell the story first to yourself.

Happy writing!