(2004-09-09) Graham On Writing Essays

Paul Graham on writing Essay-s. In schooling, they're not Stimulating Learning Projects. The seeds of our miserable High School experiences were sown in 1892, when the National Education Association/NEA "formally recommended that literature and composition be unified in the High School course."... Defending a position may be a necessary evil in a legal dispute, but it's not the best way to get at the truth, as I think lawyers would be the first to admit. It's not just that you miss subtleties this way. The real problem is that you can't change the question... An essay doesn't begin with a statement, but with a question. In a real essay, you don't take a position and defend it. You notice a door that's ajar, and you open it and walk in to see what's inside... Expressing ideas helps to form them... An essay is supposed to be a search for truth. It would be suspicious if it didn't meander... The river's algorithm is simple. At each step, flow down. For the essayist this translates to: flow interesting... Essays should aim for maximum surprise... When friends came back from faraway places, it wasn't just out of politeness that I asked what they saw. I really wanted to know. And I found the best way to get information out of them was to ask what surprised them... The more anomalies you've seen, the more easily you'll notice new ones. Which means, oddly enough, that as you grow older, life should become more and more surprising... But (as with wealth) there may be habits of mind that will help the process along. It's good to have a habit of asking questions, especially questions beginning with Why... I find it especially useful to ask why about things that seem wrong... If you want to notice things that seem wrong, you'll find a degree of skepticism helpful. I take it as an axiom that we're only achieving 1% of what we could. This helps counteract the rule that gets beaten into our heads as children: that things are the way they are because that is how things have to be... The most important sort of disobedience (Subversive) is to write essays at all.

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