Forest in the Trees: The Challenges of Shaping a Book (not a Collection) of Essays

This post by Rebecca McClanahan originally appeared on Brevity on 1/18/14.

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard seems to warn writers away from embarking on a collection of individual works: “…[S]ince every original work requires a unique form, it is more prudent to struggle with the outcome of only one form—that of a long work—than to struggle with the many forms of a collection.” As someone who has written both kinds of books (long form, book-length nonfiction, as well as books of individual essays), I must agree with Dillard. In fact, she’s letting us off easy by warning of only one challenge: the struggle to find the best form for each individual piece. Several other challenges await the writer who shapes a book of essays. Note that I wrote book of essays, not collection. To my mind, the two are vastly different. A collection merely gathers individual pieces under the same roof—the cover of the book. A well-shaped book of essays is another genre altogether; though each essay can and should stand alone, each also relates to the other essays in significant ways. If you embark on shaping a book of essays, here are some of the challenges you might face:

1. Choosing which essays to include

I never set out to write a book of essays, nor do most of the essayists I know. Rather, we find ourselves writing one essay, then another, then another. (I like how that sentence came out—we find ourselves writing—as if writing helps us find ourselves, which of course it does.) After a while, the essays accumulate. “How many do you have now?” a writer-friend asks. “Enough for a new book?” Well, that depends. Maybe enough for a collection, but a book?  I’d have to think about that. Do all the essays talk to each other in interesting ways? Is there a center point, a hub, into which all the spokes fit? If I had to write the cover copy for this book, what central elements would I highlight?


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