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The Writing of Essays


The art of the essayist is so simple, so entirely free from canons of
criticism, and withal so delightful, that one must needs wonder why all
men are not essayists. Perhaps people do not know how easy it is. Or
perhaps beginners are misled. Rightly taught it may be learnt in a brief
ten minutes or so, what art there is in it. And all the rest is as easy
as wandering among woodlands on a bright morning in the spring.

Then sit you down if you would join us, taking paper, pens, and ink; and
mark this, your pen is a matter of vital moment. For every pen writes
its own sort of essay, and pencils also after their kind. The ink
perhaps may have its influence too, and the paper; but paramount is the
pen. This, indeed, is the fundamental secret of essay-writing. Wed any
man to his proper pen, and the delights of composition and the birth of
an essay are assured. Only many of us wander through the earth and never
meet with her--futile and lonely men.

And, of all pens, your quill for essays that are literature. There is a
subtle informality, a delightful easiness, perhaps even a faint
immorality essentially literary, about the quill. The quill is rich in
suggestion and quotation. There are quills that would quote you
Montaigne and Horace in the hands of a trades-union delegate. And those
quirky, idle noises this pen makes are delightful, and would break your
easy fluency with wit. All the classical essayists wrote with a quill,
and Addison used the most expensive kind the Government purchased. And
the beginning of the inferior essay was the dawn of the cheap steel
pen.

The quill nibs they sell to fit into ordinary pen-holders are no true
quills at all, lacking dignity, and may even lead you into the New
Humour if you trust overmuch to their use. After a proper quill commend
me to a stumpy BB pencil; you get less polish and broader effects, but
you are still doing good literature. Sometimes the work is close--Mr.
George Meredith, for instance, is suspected of a soft pencil--and always
it is blunter than quill work and more terse. With a hard pencil no man
can write anything but a graceless style--a kind of east wind air it
gives--and smile you cannot. So that it is often used for serious
articles in the half-crown reviews.

There follows the host of steel pens. That bald, clear, scientific
style, all set about with words like "evolution" and "environment,"
which aims at expressing its meaning with precision and an exemplary
economy of words, is done with fine steel nibs--twelve a penny at any
stationer's. The J pen to the lady novelist, and the stylograph to the
devil--your essayist must not touch the things. So much for the pen. If
you cannot write essays easily, that is where the hitch comes in. Get a
box of a different kind of pen and begin again, and so on again and
again until despair or joy arrests you.

As for a typewriter, you could no more get an essay out of a typewriter
than you could play a sonata upon its keys. No essay was ever written
with a typewriter yet, nor ever will be. Besides its impossibility, the
suggestion implies a brutal disregard of the division of labour by which
we live and move and have our being. If the essayist typewrite, the
unemployed typewriter, who is commonly a person of superior education
and capacity, might take to essays, and where is your living then? One
might as reasonably start at once with the Linotype and print one's wit
and humour straight away. And taking the invasion of other trades one
step further one might, after an attempt to sell one's own newspaper,
even get to the pitch of having to read it oneself. No; even essayists
must be reasonable. If its mechanical clitter-clatter did not render
composition impossible, the typewriter would still be beneath the honour
of a literary man.

Then for the paper. The luxurious, expensive, small-sized cream-laid
note is best, since it makes your essay choice and compact; and, failing
that, ripped envelopes and the backs of bills. Some men love ruled
paper, because they can write athwart the lines, and some take the
fly-leaves of their friends' books. But whosoever writes on cheap sermon
paper full of hairs should write far away from the woman he loves, lest
he offend her ears. It is good, however, for a terse, forcible style.

The ink should be glossy black as it leaves your pen, for polished
English. Violet inks lead to sham sentiment, and blue-black to
vulgarity. Red ink essays are often good, but usually unfit for
publication.

This is as much almost as anyone need know to begin essay writing. Given
your proper pen and ink, or pencil and paper, you simply sit down and
write the thing. The value of an essay is not its matter, but its mood.
You must be comfortable, of course; an easy-chair with arm-rests,
slippers, and a book to write upon are usually employed, and you must be
fed recently, and your body clothed with ease rather than grandeur. For
the rest, do not trouble to stick to your subject, or any subject; and
take no thought for the editor or the reader, for your essay should be
as spontaneous as the lilies of the field.

So long as you do not begin with a definition you may begin anyhow. An
abrupt beginning is much admired, after the fashion of the clown's entry
through the chemist's window. Then whack at your reader at once, hit him
over the head with the sausages, brisk him up with the poker, bundle him
into the wheelbarrow, and so carry him away with you before he knows
where you are. You can do what you like with a reader then, if you only
keep him nicely on the move. So long as you are happy your reader will
be so too. But one law must be observed: an essay, like a dog that
wishes to please, must have a lively tail, short but as waggish as
possible. Like a rocket, an essay goes only with fizzle and sparks at
the end of it. And, know, that to stop writing is the secret of writing
an essay; the essay that the public loves dies young.

H.G. Wells