How to Experiment with Personal Essay Structure [+ Examples]
by Writing Workshops Staff
3 months ago
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Experimenting with essay structure can be a fun and creative way to take your writing to the next level. There are many different ways to approach this, but in this blog post, we will explore four specific modes of experimentation: the speculative essay, the erasure essay, the visual essay, and the constraint essay. Each of these modes offers unique opportunities to challenge your thinking and push the boundaries of formal essay writing.
The Speculative Essay: The Real + The Unreal
The speculative essay is a type of essay that blends elements of fact and fiction to create a compelling narrative. This can be a great way to explore complex ideas or add whimsy to your writing. In a speculative essay, you might combine real-world events with imaginative scenarios to create a thought-provoking and engaging story.
One way to approach the speculative essay is to start with a real-world event or situation and ask yourself, "What if?"
For example, start with a news article about a political crisis and then imagine how the situation would play out if certain events were to happen. This can be a great way to explore the consequences of different actions and think creatively about the future.
Another approach to the speculative essay is to start with an imaginary scenario and then explore its potential implications. For example, imagine a world in which humans have the ability to time travel. You could then explore the possible consequences of this new technology, both positive and negative. This can be a great way to challenge your thinking and consider the potential impact of new ideas.
One of the most famous examples of a speculative essay is "A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift. In this essay, Swift uses a satirical and humorous tone to imagine a solution to the problem of poverty in Ireland. He proposes that the poor should sell their children to the wealthy as a source of food, arguing that this would benefit both the poor and the rich. Although Swift's proposal is clearly meant to be humorous and outrageous, it also serves as a critique of the social and political conditions of his time.
The Erasure Essay: Creating Yours from Theirs
The erasure essay is a type of essay that involves taking a pre-existing text and removing words or phrases to create a new piece of writing. This can be a great way to challenge yourself and explore new ideas. In an erasure essay, you might take a passage from a book or article and then remove certain words or phrases to create a new piece of writing.
One way to approach the erasure essay is to focus on a specific theme or idea. For example, you might take a passage from a book and remove all the words related to a particular concept, such as love or fear. This can be a great way to explore the role of a specific idea in a piece of writing and to think about how it contributes to the overall narrative.
Another approach to the erasure essay is to focus on a particular structure or form. For example, take a passage from a book and remove all the words that are not nouns or verbs. This can be a great way to experiment with form and to see how the structure of a piece of writing can change its meaning.
One famous example of the erasure essay is "The Death of the Author" by Roland Barthes. In this essay, Barthes takes a pre-existing text, an article about the death of a famous author, and removes words and phrases to create a new piece of writing. This essay is a classic example of how the erasure essay can be used to challenge traditional notions of authorship and to explore new ideas.
The Visual Essay: Image + Text
The visual essay is a type of essay that combines images and text to create a multi-dimensional narrative. This can be a great way to add depth and complexity to your writing and engage your readers in new and interesting ways. In a visual essay, you might combine photos, drawings, diagrams, and other visual elements with written text to create a unique and engaging piece of writing.
One way to approach the visual essay is to focus on a specific theme or idea. For example, you might use a series of images to illustrate a particular concept, such as the passage of time or the cycle of life. You could then use written text to explore the implications of these images and to think about how they relate to the broader theme of your essay.
Another approach to the visual essay is to focus on a particular structure or form. For example, you might use images to create a series of interconnected visual elements that form a narrative. You could then use written text to connect the dots and create a cohesive story. This can be a great way to experiment with form and create a unique and engaging piece of writing.
One famous example of a visual essay that combines photos and text is "The Family of Man," a 1955 exhibit curated by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exhibit featured more than 500 photographs by 273 photographers from 68 countries, all depicting various aspects of human life. The photographs were accompanied by text written by poet Carl Sandburg, which provided context and helped to connect the images into a cohesive narrative. "The Family of Man" was widely praised for its powerful and moving portrayal of the human experience, and it remains an influential example of the visual essay genre.
Some examples of visual essay structures might include:
- A photo essay, which uses a series of images to tell a story or explore a theme
- An infographic, which uses visual elements, such as charts and graphs, to present information in a clear and concise way
- A collage, which combines images, text, and other visual elements to create a unique and engaging piece of art
- A video essay, which uses a combination of images, sound, and text to tell a story or explore a concept
- A web-based essay, which uses a combination of images, text, and other interactive elements to create a multimedia experience for the reader.
These are just a few examples of the many different ways that the visual essay structure can be used. Ultimately, the key to creating a successful visual essay is to use images and text in a way that enhances and complements each other, creating a cohesive and engaging piece of writing.
The Constraint Essay: Form-Dependent/Hermit Crab
The constraint essay is a type of essay that is written using a specific form or structure. This can be a great way to challenge yourself and explore new ideas. In a constraint essay, you choose a particular form or structure and then use it to guide the development of your essay.
One way to approach the constraint essay is to choose a specific form or structure and then use it to explore a particular theme or idea. For example, you might choose the haiku form and then use it to write a series of poems that explore the theme of nature. This can be a great way to challenge yourself and to think creatively about your chosen topic.
Another approach to the constraint essay is to use a form-dependent structure, such as the "hermit crab" essay. In this type of essay, you take a pre-existing form, such as a poem or short story, and use it as the structure for your own writing. This can be a great way to challenge yourself and to explore new ideas within the confines of a specific form.
One example of an essay that uses the hermit crab structure is a piece titled "In the City" by author James Baldwin. In this essay, Baldwin takes the form of a poem by Langston Hughes and uses it as the structure for his own writing. The result is a powerful and thought-provoking piece that explores the experiences of African Americans in the city.
The essay begins with the lines of Hughes' poem: "What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?" Baldwin then goes on to use these lines as the starting point for his own exploration of the theme of race and identity in the city. He writes about the struggles and challenges faced by African Americans in the urban environment, and the ways in which their dreams and aspirations are often deferred or denied.
Throughout the essay, Baldwin uses the structure of Hughes' poem to guide his writing, but he also adds his own insights and experiences to create a unique and powerful piece of writing. The result is a moving and thought-provoking exploration of race and identity in the city, and a powerful example of the hermit crab structure in action.
Experimenting with essay structure can be a fun and creative way to take your writing to the next level. Whether you choose to write a speculative essay, an erasure essay, a visual essay, or a constraint essay, you will have the opportunity to challenge yourself and push the boundaries of traditional essay writing. So why not give one of these modes of experimentation a try? You might just surprise yourself with what you are able to create.