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No matter how you call it—composition, paper, essay, report—expository writing or prose writing is the most common exercise of skill and labour required of many members of our society in school, in government or in the workplace. Within the four corners of the page or the computer screen, an educated mind has to pour forth her thoughts and put forth her case.

The veteran journalist Lance Morrow said that an essay is a way of thinking through difficult and perhaps insoluble problems. The keyword to Morrow’s definition is through, indicating a drawn-out process at the end of which a workable structure of argumentation should emerge. More than vague ideas, intractable insights and dictions brilliant or contrived, it is this structure that determines if an essay will get written at all and if so if it’s any good.

There are as many structures as there are essays, but all structures are built from three cornerstones, namely, theme, argument and constant awareness of what is known among professional writers and in creative writing circles as the Ideal Reader. To do justice to prose, the prose-writer must know how to lay down these stones properly.

First, every piece of essay must have a theme, and the theme must be ‘predicated’. In grammatical terms, you must have a subject and a predicate. If you only have ‘campus’ or even ‘CUHK campus’ in your head, you are a long way from writing anything intelligent about it. It’s only when you are able to put your idea in the form, say, ‘What the CUHK campus has impressed me the most’ or ‘How electric vehicles can change the face of campus transportation’ that you should pick up your pen to write the first word.

Second, the argument should be enumerated and presented logically and fully to the best of your ability. That means you have to say it or prove it not just once and not just twice but ordinarily thrice at least. This labour is called varying your theme, developing your arguments, or considering the pros and cons. To use the ‘campus’ example again, a skillful writer will enumerate one by one what the campus has captured her attention (natural landscape, physical facilities, historical significance, etc.) and why and/or how.

To write about electric cars or buses on campus, the draftsman may, for example, start with a review of the problems (campus topography, service needs, air, energy), what current circumstance or technology can offer to address or ameliorate these problems, and end with some future vision or projection.

Lastly, even the most seasoned writers may in their feverish moments of composition forget they do not write for themselves but for the Ideal Reader in their minds. Such lapse in composure usually has two consequences: the writer may think that she is speaking to her reader, and that her reader would give her approving nods as she speaks.

Nothing does greater damage to writing than confusing it with speech. The former does not have the benefit of the immediacy of the utterance that comes with the full cast of facial expression and tone of voice. In the words of the American critic and essayist Louis Menand, ‘As a medium, writing is a million times weaker than speech. It’s a hieroglyph competing with a symphony.’

A draftsman must therefore not be too easy to satisfy herself in eliminating ambiguity and making her prose intelligible. A hearer will never fail to get the meaning of the following simple utterance but if it's put on paper, comic ambiguity ensues:

He fed her dog biscuits.

And then even if the meaning is as clear as is intended, do anticipate questions and challenges from your dear reader. This may involve citing your sources, defining special terms, and contextualizing the facts or substantiating the opinions put forward by you.

Only then will justice be served to prose.

This article was originally published in No. 488, Newsletter in Dec 2016.

writing essays