Remember the essays from your high school year book?
Of course you don't... or, if you do, it's only because you're not really old yet like me. But look--decades after graduation I can call up plenty of images from memory, whole pages of my high school yearbook in crisp detail—but I have zero memory of what any of the essays were about. The photos are what we remember. And far more than the face photos, we remember the action shots.
Then of course, we remember what friends scribbled on top of the photos.
The yearbook situation may not say much about the power of essays relative to photographs. But it does say a lot about how to make essays more powerful.
1. Think (and write) visually.
You can't always include visuals, but you can *describe* actually existing visuals, citing to the appropriate sources of course. Here's one example I offered above (see V is for Verisimilitude):
- Say you're arguing that obesity and cancer risks are closely related. You've found a really persuasive graph of data from a research paper, but you're not allowed to use visuals in your paper. Ok. But what you can do is talk about the research, and then *describe* how when researchers plotted cancer rates against Body Mass Index they got a sharply rising line.
- Maybe call it "a line that rises so steeply, you would need a 4 x 4 to climb it if it were a country road."
2. Give the people what they want.
Most of the yearbook pics are obligatory, face after face in orderly rows. They are like the meat of your essay: information and evidence arranged in a logical sequence.
But what everyone really loves most are the pictures of folks goofing around backstage at the class play, or the quarterback getting Gatorade dumped on him after the biggest win of the season.
Translated to essay writing, the "action shots" are stories that bring the information to life. For example:
- You're writing about the difficulties in implementing Obamacare. You can add human drama while still sticking to the facts by discussing a newspaper article about a family and the many difficulties they encountered on their quest to be enrolled in a plan.
3. Scribble something personal on top.
What most makes a yearbook something worth hanging onto for decades are all the handwritten notes from friends. These make it personal and distinct. No one else has got exactly the same notes in theirs.
The extent to which you can personalize an academic essay will depend on the type of essay and its purpose. Your instructor should offer guidance. But you can usually find a way to make it distinct without being inappropriate. Analogies are one good strategy. For instance:
- There's a popular saying about how making legislation is like making sausages. So, ok, you have been asked to write an essay on the legislative process. Why not find out how sausages really do get made, and note all the actual parallels as the essay proceeds.
Or, if there are no actual parallels as far as you can tell, that would make for a truly great conclusion.