THIS BOOK can help you write better college essays. It combines the most important rules and conventions of academic writing with the rudiments of good style. Naturally it has its limitations: it is general (with little to say about writing in different disciplines), basic (and may be most useful to beginning college students), and short (thus covering a lot of ground quickly). It is not about critical thinking in any formal sense, and indeed tries to lay down its do's and don'ts, as well as my own unauthorized views on writing, as informally as possible. These views, personal and perhaps even idiosyncratic, may be its biggest limitation. Yet writing is an intensely personal activity. It seems only right, even necessary, that writing advice have a personal touch as well.
The college essay plays a special role in American higher education. The American system, more so than higher education in most countries, encourages a student's self-directed development. Writing essays in which you say what you think and why is crucial to that development. Writing an essay means working within a rigid framework of formats and conventions, but it requires much more than technique; in a college essay, the personal qualities of its author, passionate as well as rational, take center stage.
An essay, like a personality, hangs together through a delicate balance of forces; it should be clear but not empty, thoughtful but down-to-earth, strong-minded but fair-minded. The writer must be adept at making arguments and synthesizing and analyzing others' ideas, but original and honest. A good essay is a small piece of one's better self—more rational, more critical, and more cogent than one is in everyday speech or idle thought, yet also more spirited. When you write an essay you enter into the most challenging yet rewarding of the liberal arts: shaping your ideas, questions, and convictions to share with others.
For all that, an essay is written on paper, not carved in stone. Essays are, in the root sense of the word, tries. To essay originally meant to attempt or put to the test (and still does, in assay and the French essayer). The essay as a literary form became popular at the beginning of the modern scientific age, part of a seismic cultural shift away from