Newness is Number One in Published Essays

In every published essay, you’ll find they all have one thing in common: They all say something new to the reader. But when critics and teachers talk about essays, they almost always overlook or ignore that fact. (I know, that seems hard to believe, but it’s true.) In fact, we can see a pattern in all published essays of first identifying the old view – the familiar, accepted view – of something and then almost immediately identifying a new view, which is always in opposition to, or a reversal of, the old view. The new view thesis is then always followed by support. (By the way, you can Googlethe titles of each of the essays I’ll mention here if you put them in quote marks. Google will provide you with a link to at least one online instance of each essay, in full.) For instance, the first paragraph of George Orwell’s widely published essay, Politics and the English Language, talks about the degradation of the English language and the ugly politics of the British Empire, how the two interact and seem unbreakably bound together. In the second paragraph, Orwell points out that “the process is reversible” and that improving the usage of the English language can improve English politics and thereby help save the British Empire. That’s a clear old-to-new pattern, a reversal new view. And it’s followed by support. Another good example is Carl Sagan’s popular published essay, The Abstraction of Beasts. The very first sentence of the essay plainly states the old view:

“Beasts abstract not,” announced John Locke, expressing mankind’s prevailing opinion throughout recorded history.

In the second paragraph, Sagan presents his reverse new view of that old view by asking whether animals might be capable of abstract thought, though possibly less deeply or more rarely than humans. The rest of the essay provides facts, reasoning, and speculation to support Sagan’s new view about animals actually thinking or abstracting. A third good example is Isaac Asimov’s rather fun essay (at the beginning, at least), The Eureka Phenomenon. True, the fullness of Asimov’s old view and new view relationship does come in three stages. But he clearly talks first about his old problem of getting writer’s block and then he explains how he learned to solve it by seeing an action movie, which is his new view. (Interestingly, the old view is actually unstated at that point. Since Asimov is a thinker and a writer, he knows lots of people who run into the problem of Writer’s Block, so he assumes most people have some sort of Mental Block from time-to-time in their thinking and would be interested in a good solution to that recurring problem.) Next, he compares voluntary and involuntary thinking to voluntary and involuntary breathing. And in paragraphs ten and eleven he makes a formal statement of his new view thesis. To support that, he immediately begins telling the famous story of Archimedes solving the king’s problem and running naked through the streets yelling that he found the solution. What most of us usually don’t remember after reading this essay is that Asimov then provides further support, going through several boring stories and incidents involving scientists using the involuntary method of thinking to come up with major breakthroughs in science. And, finally, he makes a third version of his original new view thesis out of that, which involves what he sees as an ongoing pattern of scientists not giving due credit to the involuntary thinking they actually use to make scientific breakthroughs. The pattern of the three analyses I have just given you – old view, then new view thesis, then support – of three popular published essays is standard for published essays. Try the pattern out on any published essay, and you’ll see how true this is. So how do we as writers and as teachers of writing get newness prominently into our own writing and our students’ writing, especially their essays? You ready for this? Here’s the big secret-

We get newness into our own essays and those of our students by becoming sensitive to the everyday patterns of newness that exist in our culture and learning to use them in our thinking, our writing, and our everyday communications.

For instance, there’s the Dark Cloud, Silver Lining cultural pattern of newness. Normally, when something majorly unpleasant or bad happens in our lives, we get depressed and then one of our friends will say something like, “Don’t worry, Carmen-although things look pretty gloomy right now, something good will come out of this, just you wait and see.” The newness aspect of this pattern is that we’re not expecting something good to come out of something bad-but it does! The old view negative expectations get reversed, thus producing a new view. Here are some examples of the Dark Cloud, Silver Lining pattern that students can easily relate to:

  • I cried when I bombed the final exam-but I was so happy when I learned that my grades for all the quizzes, reports, and other exams in the class pulled me through.
  • Our basketball team had a poor and sadly disappointing season, but in the playoffs we were absolutely ecstatic when our team won every single game and won the state championship!
  • I and my circle of friends are poor, but we’ve found that the real fun is in the sharing, not in the glitzy, glamorous, expensive activities.
  • My family’s house is very cheap and in a poor neighborhood, but we’re actually very proud to have the cleanest, best-kept house in the whole darn city.
  • My part-time job is so horribly boring and pays so very little that I wonder why I keep working there-until I look around and notice that lots of kids don’t have any job at all.

Then there’s the David Versus Goliath cultural pattern of newness. Here’s how that works: We all know that big guys intimidate and overwhelm little guys-that’s just the way it is, what everyone expects and accepts because we see it happening all the time. For example, some big health insurance companies take advantage of powerless single policy holders. Movies are made about such situations, such as the stirring 1997 film The Rainmaker, starring Matt Damon and Danny DeVito, in which a huge insurance company is defeated by a little woman and her wet-behind-the-ears, just-out-of-school lawyer. So when the little guy overcomes the big guy, as David did to Goliath in the biblical story, everyone is a little surprised and somewhat glad about it. It’s very much like ‘Good overcomes evil’ since big guys or groups just about always throw their power around and abuse good little guys like you and me. The newness aspect of this pattern is that experience has taught all of us that big, powerful bad guys regularly make mincemeat of good little guys – so when that old view negative expectation gets reversed, we’ve got a new view. Here are examples of the David Versus Goliath cultural pattern of newness:

  • My poor little aunt took the IRS to court to stop them taking her car away to pay her back taxes. I just knew she’d lose. But my meek little aunt beat the IRS in court by standing up to them, passionately showing facts the IRS tried to cover up.
  • Larry was a smart student, but he was really very little and very meek and mousy. So when he got into an extended, rousing argument in our civics class with the big-mouthed, six foot six debating team captain and put him to shame, everyone cheered!
  • My little sister, Jenny (7 years younger), and I often compete for time with Dad, and I always win, of course. But I have to admire how lately she’s learned to so cleverly charm him and his wallet away from me-the little brat!
  • My friend Emily has a little sister (4 years younger) who always wants to go with our circle of girls, but Emily never lets her come. Last Friday, however, the little sister talked the rest of us girls into taking her with us-and leaving Emily home!
  • I’m really stupid about computers, and my brother Stan is some kind of computer genius-geek. So when his computer went bad one Saturday and I was the one who actually figured out how to fix it, I promised him I’d never let him forget it.

Many cultural patterns of newness exist ‘out there’ for us to piggyback on, both for generating new ideas and as pre-existing formats for conveying our new ideas. Can you think of any others from your own experiences? Let me suggest a few more that I’m sure you’ll recognize, just by their names:

  • Glitters, Not Gold (“All that glitters is not gold.”)
  • Lion Roars, No Teeth (“Powerful someone or something does nothing or fails.”)
  • Which Came First, The Chicken Or The Egg? (“Cause & effect are reversed/switched.”)

I’m sure you can supply the examples for these three cultural patterns of newness, without any help from me. The big idea here, of course, is that newness is all around us, particularly in published works, such as essays. And if we’re going to write an essay or anything else, we’d better be sure to focus on the #1 focus in all communications, published or not…What’s new to the reader.

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