Jess Zimmerman of Electric Literature Recommends...

When I was teaching freshman writing to undergrads, our curriculum was based on classical rhetoric. All the grad students joked about how we never wanted to hear about the stases or “ethos, pathos, logos” ever again—one of my colleagues dressed up as the rhetoric textbook for Halloween because she couldn’t think of anything scarier. But we also immediately found ourselves incorporating the concepts we were teaching into our own writing and finding, quite against our wills, that it became so much better. The most annoyingly helpful and enduring concept was exigence, which is the so-what factor, the thing that makes your argument feel important and urgent. I think about exigence when I write, when I pitch, and especially when I evaluate pitches and edit essays. I get that you want to write this, but why does your audience need to read it, and why do they need to read it now? I need to learn that from your pitch, and I need to see that it’s been in the corner of your eye throughout the writing process. This is especially crucial in an environment Aristotle could never have predicted: the internet. It’s vital to think about how you can make people feel your essay is somehow more urgent than, say, continuing to doomscroll.

So this is a dual recommendation: Evaluate exigence and also consider spending some time reading about ancient systems of reasoning and persuasion. It doesn’t have to be Greek classical rhetoric—there were similar traditions out of India, China, the Middle East. (I just didn’t have to study those to teach, because academia is still very Western-centric.) Personal essays are arguments, or they should be—you’re trying to sway people to see things your way. Studying people who were devoted to analyzing, codifying, and perfecting argumentative writing will improve your work across the board, from pitch to finished product.

Jess Zimmerman, editor in chief, Electric Literature