Q: When is an essay not an essay?
A: When its organization is undetectable.
According to Forrest Gump's mother, "Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're going to get" (which is why I buy only Nuts and Chews!). What may be true for life should not apply to essays, which "attempt" (fr. French essayer,* "to try") to convey one's perspective so that readers know exactly what they're getting.
Acknowledging that there are no perfect analogies, I believe that crafting an essay is something akin to making a grocery list. That is, depending on the essay, a reader will either stride easily along its well-marked paths or will be sentenced to wander around aimlessly in search of meaning to nourish the mind; likewise, depending on the grocery list, a shopper will either move quickly through the store or will be condemned to bounce from one aisle to another randomly searching for food in order to nourish the body.
Imagine that an essay and a grocery store are both storehouses—one for information, the other for food and household products. Both contain important materials, but it is the organization of these materials and the "directions" the writer gives the reader (or shopper) that invite either success or confusion.
As most of us have vast experience grocery shopping, let's begin there: would you prefer to head into your local store with a well-organized list or one that's a jumble of products, one that in no way resembles the layout of the store? How much easier (and faster) it is to complete your shopping when the grocery list you clutch follows the path of the store: first produce, then meats, next paper products, followed by grains and snacks, then canned fruits and vegetables, then dairy, and finally frozen foods. Whereas these are just categories of products, they are helpful for two reasons: there is a correlation between these and the signs in the aisles; and everything you need in each category is all together in one place. Thus this type of list—"apples, bananas, kiwi, lettuce, cucumber, and tomato; chicken, turkey, and ham; t.p.; Cheerios, wheat bread, p.b. and jelly; canned peaches; milk and cottage cheese; o.j. and waffles"—sure beats the kind that is randomly constructed: "eggs, t.p., steak, cereal, paper towels, cheese, deodorant, potatoes, etc."
What kind of grocery list-maker are you?
For the history student, the essay is the usual means to convey how much and how well one has learned material from a course. Thus the successful student is usually the one who has mastered the art of the historical essay. This means that the essay not only has a point/purpose/theme/thesis/perspective (take your pick), but is also clearly laid out, enabling the reader to "shop" effortlessly for its ideas. Rather than, for example, provide a random list of causes for, say, the French Revolution—one after another in no clear order or purpose—the successful essayist offers not only a clear blueprint of the essay (in the Introduction, covered in this column last winter term), but also "signs" indicating the essay's main categories—otherwise known as topic sentences. These signposts enable the writer to discuss, say, all the economic causes of the French Revolution in one place, and all the social or political causes elsewhere. Thus the reader discerns not only a coherence of ideas, but also a larger meaning to the Revolution's causes—e.g., that the causes were not completely random, but were economic, political, social, intellectual, even religious in nature. There is, of course, room to create different kinds of categories, and here's where one's perspective comes in: perhaps the writer sees as crucial "underlying or systemic causes" and "immediate causes," and thus chooses to organize the essay around these categories. The point is less about the nature of the categories than it is about having categories, as these create order and thus meaning for the reader and thus success for the writer.
What kind of essayist are you?
*"essay" is also an English verb, though a somewhat archaic one anymore. It is, however, forever in my mind from a limerick I learned in junior high school: There once was a girl named Lynn/Who was so incredibly thin/That when she essayed/To drink lemonade/She slipped through the straw and fell in.