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The Perfect Essay

POSTCARD FROM NEW YORK

By Joshua A. Kaufman

The perfect essay, like life itself, is exact in formal procedure and logical ascent. It has a beginning, known more intimately as a birth, a middle, that part in which one determines the direction and slant of one's future endeavors, and an end, the climax toward which all prior experiences naturally lead and in which the essence of the topic, one's purpose, becomes known. Let us proceed now to discuss first the birth, second the middle, and third the end of the perfect essay.

The genesis of a perfect essay lies in a particular, rational observation of the workaday world. For example, on my daily outing to work I notice that all the subway riders, while somewhat sleepy, are sprightly in their attitude toward the day. When I return from work on the same train line, I see similar faces, also somewhat sleepy, but distinctly dispirited in their appearance. My conclusion is that the work these riders, whom we may surmise are representative of workers the country over, perform drains rather than fulfills them.

The concluding sentence of the previous paragraph would serve well as the thesis for a perfect essay--which should always be the first sentence of the essay--since it is a logical deduction that can be proved by evidence. The reader will appreciate clarity and simplicity in both the thought and the vocabulary of the author of the essay. It is not that the reader is a stupid person but that he or she ought not to have to give extra thought to a statement if it might be put before him or her in a transparent fashion. Acuity of purpose, then, is the proper measure for the success of an essay's beginning.

Following the beginning of the essay is the middle of the essay, by which I refer to all of those (evenly worded) graphs which are necessary to lead the reader from one's introduction--itself requiring only a paragraph or, at most, two--to one's conclusion, which ought to be of similar length and breadth to one's introduction and ought to appear as a mirror image of its earlier self in determining exactly what was set out to prove. These middle paragraphs can be many or few, but they must be evenly numbered, and they must not confuse the reader by failing to lead him or her from one paragraph to another through the use of "so's," "moreover's," "therefore's" and other such connecting devices.

Inasmuch as that is noted, the objective for the writer of the perfect essay is the exact argument. The exact argument proceeds from a previously elaborated thesis. It is ordinarily divided into two, three or four points. All complex arguments are also required to be reduced to two, three or four points so that the reader can comprehend the nature of the argument. Within each point, the author is required to marshal evidence to convince the reader that the thesis of the essay is perfect. In the case of the weary workers, for example, the author might cite personal discussions, even if the vulgar language contained therein, i.e., "My job sucks," would not typically be suitable for an essay.

The end of the essay arrives, of course, only after the author has proved the thesis. The purpose of the end in a perfect essay is not to continue the argument of the essay--in that case, the essay would not have ended. Nor is the purpose of the end to simply stop--a red light is not the equivalent of an ending. Rather, a conclusion is a sort of contented wrapping of the package, a happy ending, a period. A conclusion works backward, restating the points of the argument in reverse. Then the conclusion, not smugly but always with confidence, states--not suggests--that its thesis has been vindicated by the argument contained therein.

One of the beautiful things, for lack of a more perfect word, about a conclusion is its fatalism. The writer is perfectly well aware that the end of his or her work is near. Yet he or she perseveres, impelled not merely to state the conclusion to the perfect essay in a blunt regard, but to explicate it fully and thoughtfully, as if he or she were retying the ribbon on an unwrapped package. The contents of said package have, of course, been revealed. The reader must, however, be fully alerted to the existence of its contents.

As I have noted above, the conclusion is a necessary final complement to the perfect essay. It is the icing on a seven layer cake. Previously, the author had made his or her case by carefully adding layer upon layer, certain to keep each stable enough for the others to stand upon. Each layer had been applied in a coherent order beginning with the thesis. If the thesis had been "sponge," the subsequent layers would have been "cream," "sponge," "cream," "sponge," "cream" and then "sponge." And the conclusion to such an essay--if it were to be a perfect essay--in a manner of perfect reversibility and irreversible finality would be, of course, "cream."

Joshua A. Kaufman '98 is the Editorial Chair of The Crimson. He is spending the summer writing perfect essays for Business Week.

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