Essay a skill which is a bit more current

28th November 2003 at 00:00
I did my degree in the mid-Sixties at Sussex, the trendiest university of a trendy decade. Ah yes, the Jay twins, people say when you mention Sussex, referring to the glamorous daughters of a then cabinet minister who were photographed in innumerable colour magazines. But the important thing academically was the multi-disciplinary degree structure. My "major" subject was history but I spent at least as much time on philosophy, literature, sociology and psychology.

If Sussex was radical in this respect, however, it was conservative, even reactionary, in another. The model for its teaching was the Oxbridge tutorial. For humanities subjects, two students met a tutor each week and read essays aloud. I would attempt a weekly essay on a subject I didn't entirely understand. This was a perfect preparation for the upmarket weekly journalism in which I have spent nearly all my working life.

At two recent conferences, Mike Tomlinson, former chief inspector of schools, said that standards of essay-writing have deteriorated and, with them, the ability to construct a clear, logical, evidence-based argument.

But fewer than 10 per cent went to university in the Sixties and not all of them emerged as polished essay writers. Until I became an editor, I had not realised how many journalists even of my generation - to say nothing of academics, politicians, top company executives and so on - struggle with what Tomlinson calls "extended writing" and require, as a colleague used to put it,"substantial help to get into print".

Bethan Marshall wrote on this page last week that the essay has been a neglected art form for the past 50 years. Yet in the press, the label has lately enjoyed a revival. The Daily Mail has a "Saturday essay", dignifying what is in reality a long rant. The weekend supplements call something an essay if it is rather long and they don't have pictures for it. On the New Statesman, we have something called an "essay" most weeks. It is usually between 2,000 and 3,000 words and tries to meet almost exactly the criteria listed by Marshall: "impassioned reason, cogent argument. . . (which) takes the reader by the hand" and moves to a conclusion "via an interplay of evidence and analysis". The writers are often academics. I tell them an essay should have a sense of a journey, with four sections: a beginning, two middles, and an end.

Very few people of any age can write a publishable essay of this sort. Many journalists use words in clumps ("hit out at his critics","faced a new crisis last night") and stick them together in random order; politicians tend to think in banal sound-bites; academics use too much jargon, members of think-tanks too many abstract words.

How important is it for people to write essays? Certainly, journalists, academics and policy-thinkers ought to master the skill. But for many others, it is more important to master the business document, with its crisp bullet-points, or the publicity mailshot - art forms as neglected in schools and universities now as they were 40 years ago. Equally important is the email, probably now the most common single form of written communication in offices, and one which still lacks widely-agreed rules and conventions.

I sympathise with Tomlinson; I like the kind of writing and thinking suggested by the word "essay". But I fear that an educator has put too high a premium on skills needed in academia to the detriment of those used in the wider world.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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