The Quiet Rise of the Conversational Essay
The most important essay type today is the “conversational essay,” and yet nobody talks about it, nor do they teach it in schools. This idea came to me when I realized that all of the writing that I pay for is composed of conversational essays. One is Stratechery, a business blog. Another is Slate Star Codex, for which I donate via Patreon, and the other is Harper’s. Harper’s is a general interest print magazine, but a big draw is their Easy Chair section at the beginning, where a rotating cast of writers expounds on various topics in a manner that could only be described as conversational.
Part of wanting to coin a new essay type comes from the belief that it should be taught in schools. The most common essay types they teach in school are the narrative and the persuasive. The persuasive is typically taught with the rigid five-part essay structure, starting with an intro and thesis, followed by three supporting paragraphs, and then ending with a conclusion. And yet, this essay type does not prepare us for the real world. In collaborative workplaces, email is king, and having a command of the conversational essay is key to success. Outside of the workplace, you may have to write a petition to your neighborhood association. Or you may find yourself defending your political positions on Facebook or Twitter. In both instances, the conversational essay is again king.
Teachers don’t teach the conversational essay, though, partly because it’s not structured enough. The conversational essay happens to be a mashup of the other essay types, incorporating narrative and argumentative elements together. Conversational essays differ from strictly persuasive ones in the following ways:
- They are open to multiple points and theses
- They don’t necessarily come to a hard conclusion, leaving room for discussion
- They mix personal and public data points
When teaching conversational essays, the emphasis should be less on structure and more on building rhetorical techniques to curry favor with your audience, making your point compelling. There is an art to the conversational essay, as evidenced by my willingness to pay for the better ones, and many of them are more influential than standard persuasive essays. Some of the best entries on Daring Fireball and Slate Star Codex are more influential than articles in The Atlantic. And some of the most commonly shared content on Facebook and Twitter are micro-conversational-essays.
Perhaps the resistance to officially endorsing the conversational essay comes from our distaste with its plebeian origins. The essay type has its roots in blogs, which are still associated with navel-gazing while describing what you ate for breakfast. The popular online publications I mentioned above technically are blogs, yet the term no longer seems appropriate.
However, the media publications that have survived and thrived post-Internet have already co-opted the trappings of “blogs.” The New Yorker has nurtured writers like Malcolm Gladwell, who writes like he’s conducting a TED Talk. Furthermore, the magazine has created a blogging portal to accompany the magazine, where their writers are free to publish without editorial oversight. The result is that half of the New Yorker articles that go viral come from the blog and half from the magazine.
As alluded to earlier, much of our political debate consists of conversational essays that happen in the comments sections of Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit. If there were a nationwide push to improve the next generation’s skills in writing conversational essays, perhaps there would be fewer flame wars and trolling. Perhaps by acknowledging this writing medium, rather than shunning or pretending it doesn’t exist, we can improve the literacy of the masses, and in tandem, democracy.
Philip Dhingra is the author of Dear Hannah, a cautionary tale about self-improvement.