Why write essays?

Audience, Class

Rhetorician Kenneth Burke believed thinkers should see themselves as new participants in an ongoing, ever-expanding conversation.¹ Before you disclaim the role of thinker, remember that you and your adviser are crafting a two or more year journey to expertise in a subject. You enrolled in class to learn from your instructor and from the authors you are asked to read. Part of being a student, however, is adding your own thoughts to the information you receive from teachers and textbooks.

Writing assignments are the entry points into the conversation. Teachers assign them to measure your readiness to speak or to ask you outright to speak on the listening you’ve been doing. Don’t be nervous. Your early forays are at the freshman level and you are speaking to others as new to this as you.

Each new course you take will offer opportunities for conversations between you, the instructors, your classmates, and the authors of whatever books and research materials you pull into your homework. Attend class, form a study group (even if it’s with only one other person), and to hear the voices unavailable to you in person, read. As in any conversation, start by listening to those already talking. Before you take an essay exam or write a paper, remember why you’ve been listening. Plan your essay as a combination of acknowledging what others have already said and your contribution to the conversation.

While you are probably not publishing your essays wider than your classroom, write them as though you have an intelligent audience prepared to think alongside you. Keeping readers in mind improves how you write on any subject.

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¹  Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1941; revised and abridged edition, New York: Vintage, 1957.