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Writers' Views: The Art of the Essay

Comedians call them monologues. Editorialists call them columns. And college applicants call them something we can't repeat. The essay may be the bane of students, but it's an endlessly flexible form for writers. Join NPR's Neal Conan in a discussion with writers about the art of crafting the essay.


Hilary Masters novelist and essayist, whose work has appeared in Best American Essays and the Best Essays of 1998. Recipient of Arts and Letters award for literature in 2003. Professor of creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University.

Robert Atwan, editor of the Best American Essays series from Houghton-Mifflin

Meghan Daum author of Confessions of My Misspent Youth. Commentaries have appeared on NPR and This American Life.

We asked readers to send us a mini-essay with a clear thesis and arguments. The topic: What's your favorite word? We recieved more essays than we can possibly post, but here is one of our favorites. Check back tomorrow for more.

From author Diane Baum

The word "essay" means "to try." We value the attempt not necessarily the success. We sally forth, swords drawn, imagining that we will slay the dragon of our topic. Confused in battle, we become lost, a muddle in the middle. Then the dragon's hot breath burns the back of our necks. We run for our lives before we lose the game and are slain and done, the dragon's won.

From Rita Moe, Roseville, Minn.

My favorite word is small. Unassuming, gentle. Hear the smoothness of its beginning; the soft, long "ah" sound at its center; the lulling curve of its ending. Small. Small. One can say it quietly, but not quickly, nor in a timorous voice.

Consider its poor cousin, little. Spit as you will, it won't leave your mouth, but flattens against the top of your tongue and skulks off down your gullet. Tiny, on the other hand, is not afraid to jump out and stand boldly. But it is flashy and frivolous. It rhymes with heinie and reminds us of tulips and tiptoes.

But small, now there is a word that comforts. Its a round, smooth stone washed by waves, one you can hold in the palm of your hand. It warms to the touch. It has more substance than some seemingly more important words. Big, for instance. How abrupt and piggy. And large. The ending of large brings the teeth together like the jaws of a lion munching on mice.

No, give me small. Small is a heartbreaker. It can transform anything into something tender that needs to be protected: a small shoe, a small jungle, a small cluster of stars, a small tempest, a small wound, a small hammer, a small, very small regret.

From Carrie Covell, Reedsburg, Wisc.

I've always had an appreciation for the word nifty. It has that special onomatopoeic quality; what else could it mean? It's not well used in literary circles, and I wonder why that is so. No synonym quite fills its shoes. It is simple to spell, with none of the tricks so many fun words like to throw at us. It's enjoyable to write longhand with that tall 'F' in the middle and the 'Y' on the end. Unique yet utilitarian, maybe it's just a bit too quirky for everyday use.

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Neal Conan
Award winning journalist Neal Conan was the final host of Talk of the Nation, which broadcast its final show on June 27, 2013.