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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Essays: The Long & Short of It

Wondering how long an essay should be? Depends on your market.

Want a longer answer than that? Ohhhhhhhhhhh.

Various consumer magazines take short personal essays. Woman's Day, Real Simple, Good Housekeeping, and Washingtonian, off the top of my head, use pieces of about 1,200 words to 600 words, and they can be formulaic or a true narrative.

A faculty member at Goucher once offended me by dismissing essays this short as "columns." I like to think that she was referring only to the formulaic pieces. Often they consist of an anecdote, some rumination, and then an epiphany (which I think of as a "zinger wrap-up"). I believe lovely literary pieces can be short. There are whole books of examples of these, darn it! (In Short, In Brief, Brief Takes).

In short pieces, you must paste across the top of your computer screen: SHOW, DON'T TELL. It's all too easy to tell the reader what brought you to a flash of insight that we may safely call the "Aha" moment. As in, "Aha! I've figured out what something means!" It is far harder, but so much stronger, to guide them into the story emotionally so that they can feel that Aha with you. They should be able to discern your message without your telling them in so many words.

Go Long
When I read a piece where everything is "tell, tell, tell," I now see it as a clear signal that the essay should be longer. Often, much longer. I had a hard time learning this lesson. I was a journalist when I went off to get my MFA in creative nonfiction. I had been starting to write short essays, 500-600 words. My first assignment was to write a 5,000-word piece on crying (I mentioned in class that I hate to cry), and just the words "five thousand" made feel that someone had whacked me between the eyes with an unabridged dictionary. First, I listed anecdotes with some sections about science and psychology larded in. Then I figured out how to connect these bits with a narrative string that ran through all of them.

Long essays can be sold to consumer magazines, but a more likely home for them is in a literary journal.

Booking It
Long essays can end up as chapters in a memoir, such as Lauren Slater's first book, Welcome to My Country. But can a long essay be transformed to make a saleable one-page essay? To do so, abandon the need to tell all the details. It rarely works to hack a longer piece down to meet the word count; the message, what the essay is really about (e.g., "Love endures," "honesty," "fear"), has to be distilled from a longer piece.

An essay that will be a chapter in a memoir must stand on its own, apart from the book. It must have a story arc. It must be a cobblestone--tough, independent--in the road that the whole book takes a reader on.

category: craft


Blogger Joanne said...

Thanks for these reflections. I'd like to point some writing students to them. Is there a "permalink" for the piece?

8:40 AM  

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