Medium-Form Essay


Once during the semester you will expand one of your blog posts into a longer thought piece, what Dan Cohen calls (to his regret, perhaps) a “blessay”. In previous instantiations of this class I tried to champion “blessay,” but I’ve given it up—we’ll simply call them “medium-form essays.” To quote nearly Dan’s entire post on the subject:

Sorry, I don’t have a better name for it, but I feel it needs a succinct name so we can identify and discuss it. It’s not a tossed-off short blog post. It’s not a long, involved essay. It’s somewhere in between: it’s a blessay.

The blessay is a manifestation of the convergence of journalism and scholarship in mid-length forms online. (For those keeping track at home, #7 on my list of ways that journalism and the humanities are merging in digital media). You’ve seen it on The Atlantic‘s website, on smart blogs like BLDGBLOG and Snarkmarket, and on sites that aggregate high-quality longform web writing. [Prof. Cordell: I would add the more recently-emerged site Medium, from which several of our class readings are drawn]

Some characteristics of the blessay:

    1. Mid-length: more ambitious than a blog post, less comprehensive than an academic article. Written to the length that is necessary, but no more. If we need to put a number on it, generally 1,000-3,000 words.
    2. Informed by academic knowledge and analysis, but doesn’t rub your nose in it.
    3. Uses the apparatus of the web more than the apparatus of the journal, e.g., links rather than footnotes. Where helpful, uses supplementary evidence from images, audio, and video—elements that are often missing or flattened in print.
    4. Expresses expertise but also curiosity. Conclusive but also suggestive.
    5. Written for both specialists and an intelligent general audience. Avoids academic jargon—not to be populist, but rather out of a feeling that avoiding jargon is part of writing well.
    6. Wants to be Instapapered and Read Later.
    7. Eschews simplistic formulations superficially borrowed from academic fields like history (no “The Puritans were like Wikipedians”).

I suspect readers of this blog know the genre I’m talking about. Am I missing other key characteristics of the blessay? What are some exemplary instances?

You can complete your medium-form essay at any point during the semester, but I strongly recommend you don’t wait until our final weeks, when you’ll be busy with your final project. You should post this piece as as a new post on your blog, not as an update to the post it expands. You should alert me to this special post when you’ve completed it. You should also use the blog category “medium-form” to designate these pieces, so we can search for them all at once on the course website.