dean's list (of essays)

Here’s a list of the essays I’ve read, liked, and scored (starting in 2024). My goal is to assemble a reading list of amazing and varied essays to help writers study the craft. Starting July, I’ll publish reviews to break these down in more detail.

Everything is scored using my Essay Architecture framework. A score has no correlation with how historically important the writer is, or how much I like the subject matter. The score here (out of 10) measure it’s well-roundedness. How well does it touch on the 27 patterns around idea, form, and voice?


9.9 — David Foster Wallace, “How Tracey Austin Broke My Heart,” 2008. L. B.
9.7 —
Jamison, Leslie, “The Empathy Exams,” 2014. L. B.
9.4 — David Foster Wallace, “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s,” 2001. L. B.
8.7 — Umberto Ecco, “Swallowing the cell phone,” 2008. B.
8.6 — Brian Doyle, “Joyas Voladoras,” 2004. L. B.
8.3 — Chuck Kloisterman, “I Assume It’s Going to Be Fun,” 2009. L. B.
8.3 — Cynthia Ozick, “Existing Things,” 1996.
8.3 — Amanda Montell, “Repeat After Me … ,” 2021. B.
8.0 — David Sedaris, “Chipped Beef,” 1997. B.
7.9 — EB White, “Here Is New York," 1949. L. B.
7.7 — Brian Doyle, “The Greatest Nature Essay Ever,” 2008. L. B.
7.6 — Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet,” 1844. L. B.
7.5 — Sven Birkets, “Brave Face,” 2007. B.
7.4 — Umberto Ecco, “Is Harry Potter Bad for Adults?,” 2003. B.
7.3 — Roxanne Gay, “On Sitting,” 2018.
7.2 — Joan Didion, “I Can’t Get That Monster Out Of My Head,” 1964. L. B.
7.2 — Leslie Jamison, “Rehearsals,” 2019. L. B.
7.1 — Jia Tolentino, “The Pitfalls and the Potentials of New Minimalism,” 2020, L.
7.0 — David Foster Wallace, “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” 1996. L. B.
6.8 — Ursula Le Guin, “[Review of] Margaret Atwood: Moral Disorder,” 2006. L. B.
6.8 — Ilan Stevens, “Dictionary Days,” 2005. B.
6.8 — Zadie Smith, “The American Exception,” 2020. L. B.
6.5 — Umberto Ecco, “More thoughts on cell phones,” 2005. B.
6.5 — Manvir Singh, “Don’t Believe What They’re Telling You…” 2024. L.
6.3 — John McPhee, “Draft No. 4,” 2013. L. B.
6.3 — John McPhee, “Structure,” 2013. L. B.
6.2 — Ursula Le Guin, “Staying Awake,” 2008. L. B.
6.2 — Phillip Lopate, “Portrait of My Body,” 1996. L. B.
5.8 — Mary Cappello, “Tactless,” 2010. B.
5.5 — Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” 1966. L. B.


L = Link to read the essay online.
B = Book of essays that includes this essay.
As I write reviews, the essay titles will get hyperlinks.


FAQ


How does the scoring system work?

The goal of Essay Architecture is to show you the secret architecture of great essays. After reading thousands of drafts and essays, I’ve noticed these 27 patterns across the medium. All of these concepts already exist, but I put them into an architectural hierarchy and created a rubric to score each pattern 1 out of 5 (from missing to mastery).

Each essay gets a score out of 135, which is converted to a 1-10 scale. I’d say anything over a 7.8 is great, and anything over a 5.5 is good (I won’t list anything that’s not good).

The score is a proxy for “formal completeness.” It indicates its well-roundedness. How well does it cover all the known components that great essays are known to have? Some famous writers are masters in some formal elements, but weaker in others. This system aims to be blind to history, culture, politics, and gender. It holds no heroes. It defines a quality standard, which is vanishingly rare in our culture.


Isn’t quality subjective?

Well, yes and no. Of course, every reader is different. There’s no telling how someone will respond to an essay at a personal, cultural, or moral level. But when it comes to formal qualities (idea, form, and voice) we can analyze any essay from the same rubric.

Despite our extreme differences, we all have a humanOS, meaning process text in a somewhat similar manner: we process text linearly; we want prose to hit our nervous system with sights, sounds, and feeling; we have limited bandwidth; we want to learn and to empathize; we have the paradoxical desire for orientation and surprise; etc.

If anything, I’d say this system is “transjective,” a fusion of objectivity and subjectivity. It objectively declares that these 27 patterns are core to every essay, but it isn’t prescriptive in how you execute. It doesn’t give you a structural formula or a title template. It doesn’t say some voices are better than others. There is extreme flexibility, and two wildly different essays can score the same.


Does this system apply to all writing?

No! Just essays. Different genres have different formal rules. A poem, a quarterly investor memo, and a memoir shouldn’t share the same rubric. Some patterns do jump across mediums, but each medium has it’s own unique collection of rules.

The essay is the most encompassing of all the genres. It lets the soul of the memoirist, the rigor of the academic, the and the pen of a poet co-exist on the same page. While some break the essay into sub-genres (the personal essay, the expository essay, the op-ed), I think the essay can and should dissolve these boundaries.


How did you come up with this system?

I edit, read, and write a lot of essays. I’ll usually scribble a list of elements that are working and not working. Intermittently, I’ll combine my lists and cluster the elements into a taxonomy.

Over time, I’ve noticed 3 main clusters: ideas have centrality, form is linear, and voice is textural. I continued to group my lists into sub-points and sub-sub-points, until I got to the rubric above. 27 felt like the right level of resolution. It assembles many of the known writing moves into one framework, and each one feels essential and flexible.

There are many named rhetorical concepts with fancy Latin names (ie: anaphora, epizeuxis), but they’re too specific and inflexible. There are dozens of “types” of repetition, and no one type is better than another. While repetition is a core patten, each writer might gravitate towards different types of it.


Why are you doing this?

This is one of the ways I practice writing. In addition to logging, writing intuitively on a typewriter, and studying vocab, I read essays with an analytic eye. Carefully studying patterns lets them come out subconsciously when I write. The whole idea is to master the formal dimensions of craft, so that the patterns are invisible to both the writer and the reader.

By open-sourcing my process, I hope to make it easier for you to study essays. The above list gives you an abundance of links and books to check out. Unlike other projects around literature criticism that are political and acerbic, the goal here is to be a learning resource. It seems like essayists of our era have forked in so many directions, and this aims to unify and inspire an ideal for the medium,


How accurate are your scores?

I’ve made a habit of reading and scoring a classic essay everyday. This means I have to be relatively quick in my evaluations, and I likely make mistakes. Sometimes I take 5 minutes on a score, and sometimes I’ll take 2 hours. It depends. You should assume any score you see is +/- 10%. Starting in July 2024, I’ll be posting “essay reviews,” which will have the most accurate scores, along with detailed explanations.


Will you read and score my essays?

Feel free to send any essays for me to consider here. It could be your own essay or your favorite essay. I can’t promise that I’ll get to every one because I can’t predict the volume, but I do like discovering new writers. Some of my favorite essays have come from recommendations.

michael@michaeldean.site


Stats:

  • 30 essays scored

  • Avg. score: 7.43

  • Average year written: 1998

  • Year range: 1844 - 2024