My take on Paul Graham

“An essay doesn’t begin with a statement, but with a question. In a real essay, you don’t take a position and defend it. You notice a door that’s ajar, and you open it and walk in to see what’s inside.”

This first excerpt will help me map out and outline my essay more efficiently. In past essays I have struggled to begin the research and writing process, and this excerpt puts it so simply. All I need to do is ask the right questions and the essay should spawn from those questions. That said, I think I’m going to need to ask several questions to find the best one’s to answer.

“But that’s not what you’re trying to do in an essay. An essay is supposed to be a search for truth. It would be suspicious if it didn’t meander.”

I feel lost when researching and writing sometimes and I think this excerpt will help put my mind at ease.  I am sometimes frustrated when I can’t find exactly what I am looking for. The way Graham phrases this makes me realize I’ve been on a fools errand all along. How can I find exactly what Im looking for when I don’t know what I’m trying to look for? Research and writing is a trial and error process, and that means I might need to meander a bit. Though meandering feels unproductive, I need to trust that I’m on the right path even when I feel I am lost in research. I need to make the distinction between being lost and meandering. Just because you don’t know where you are, doesn’t mean you’re lost. I might meander through different topics while trying to answer the same questions.

“The trick is to use yourself as a proxy for the reader. You should only write about things you’ve thought about a lot. And anything you come across that surprises you, who’ve thought about the topic a lot, will probably surprise most readers.”

This idea helps me realize that I shouldn’t force-write about something that isn’t as intriguing within my research collection, I’ve done that often in past essays. This proxy also suggests I need to be well read on my topic before I decide to pick out my writing topics. This seems like a no-brainer, but for me – a person who has never enjoyed reading, and is now slowly starting to see and understand the benefits of reading from several sources about the same topic – this idea is new. To implement the idea, I might need to regiment more reading into everyday.

“Above all, make a habit of paying attention to things you’re not supposed to, either because they’re “inappropriate,” or not important, or not what you’re supposed to be working on.”

I like this. For me, this is a refreshing reminder that it doesn’t help to shy away from topics. Even if something is “bad”, you can still learn from it. I think Graham is trying to say “be sure to pay attention to everything, even the things you don’t like, because you can learn from anything”. So, if I spy an idea I disagree with, I should try to investigate it further.

“The other big difference between a real essay and the things they make you write in school is that a real essay doesn’t take a position and then defend it.”

This is another friendly reminder for me to not get caught in a binary argument. If I am defending something, am I really looking at the full scope of my topic? Will my research be jaded if I pick a side? It is important for me to take many different angles of research to create a full essay.


One thought on “My take on Paul Graham

  1. One of the reasons I really love essays, I think, is that I really like thoughtful people. I like listening to a person talk about something that they’ve really thought a lot about, because it can help me learn things, and help me think of things in new ways, etc.

    So one reason why I think you can be a good writer, Ben, is that you *are* thoughtful! You think about things. You try to figure them out. You may not have conceptualized those as qualities that could help your writing, but they’re actually the most important things. So in the next few weeks, we’re going to try to put them to use.


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