For other uses, see Essay (disambiguation).
For a description of essays as used by Wikipedia editors, see Wikipedia:Essays.
"Essai" redirects here. For other uses, see Essai (disambiguation).
An essay is, generally, a piece of writing that gives the author's own argument — but the definition is vague, overlapping with those of a paper, an article, a pamphlet, and a short story. Essays have traditionally been sub-classified as formal and informal. Formal essays are characterized by "serious purpose, dignity, logical organization, length," whereas the informal essay is characterized by "the personal element (self-revelation, individual tastes and experiences, confidential manner), humor, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty of theme," etc.
Essays are commonly used as literary criticism, political manifestos, learned arguments, observations of daily life, recollections, and reflections of the author. Almost all modern essays are written in prose, but works in verse have been dubbed essays (e.g., Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism and An Essay on Man). While brevity usually defines an essay, voluminous works like John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Thomas Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population are counterexamples. In some countries (e.g., the United States and Canada), essays have become a major part of formal education. Secondary students are taught structured essay formats to improve their writing skills; admission essays are often used by universities in selecting applicants, and in the humanities and social sciences essays are often used as a way of assessing the performance of students during final exams.
The concept of an "essay" has been extended to other mediums beyond writing. A film essay is a movie that often incorporates documentary filmmaking styles and focuses more on the evolution of a theme or idea. A photographic essay covers a topic with a linked series of photographs that may have accompanying text or captions.
An essay has been defined in a variety of ways. One definition is a "prose composition with a focused subject of discussion" or a "long, systematic discourse". It is difficult to define the genre into which essays fall. Aldous Huxley, a leading essayist, gives guidance on the subject. He notes that "the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything", and adds that "by tradition, almost by definition, the essay is a short piece". Furthermore, Huxley argues that "essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference". These three poles (or worlds in which the essay may exist) are:
- The personal and the autobiographical: The essayists that feel most comfortable in this pole "write fragments of reflective autobiography and look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description".
- The objective, the factual, and the concrete particular: The essayists that write from this pole "do not speak directly of themselves, but turn their attention outward to some literary or scientific or political theme. Their art consists of setting forth, passing judgment upon, and drawing general conclusions from the relevant data".
- The abstract-universal: In this pole "we find those essayists who do their work in the world of high abstractions", who are never personal and who seldom mention the particular facts of experience.
Huxley adds that the most satisfying essays "...make the best not of one, not of two, but of all the three worlds in which it is possible for the essay to exist."
The word essay derives from the French infinitive essayer, "to try" or "to attempt". In English essay first meant "a trial" or "an attempt", and this is still an alternative meaning. The Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) was the first author to describe his work as essays; he used the term to characterize these as "attempts" to put his thoughts into writing, and his essays grew out of his commonplacing. Inspired in particular by the works of Plutarch, a translation of whose Œuvres Morales (Moral works) into French had just been published by Jacques Amyot, Montaigne began to compose his essays in 1572; the first edition, entitled Essais, was published in two volumes in 1580. For the rest of his life, he continued revising previously published essays and composing new ones. Francis Bacon's essays, published in book form in 1597, 1612, and 1625, were the first works in English that described themselves as essays. Ben Jonson first used the word essayist in English in 1609, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
English essayists included Robert Burton (1577–1641) and Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682). In France, Michel de Montaigne's three volume Essais in the mid 1500s contain over 100 examples widely regarded as the predecessor of the modern essay. In Italy, Baldassare Castiglione wrote about courtly manners in his essay Il Cortigiano. In the 17th century, the JesuitBaltasar Gracián wrote about the theme of wisdom. During the Age of Enlightenment, essays were a favored tool of polemicists who aimed at convincing readers of their position; they also featured heavily in the rise of periodical literature, as seen in the works of Joseph Addison, Richard Steele and Samuel Johnson. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Edmund Burke and Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote essays for the general public. The early 19th century, in particular, saw a proliferation of great essayists in English – William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt and Thomas de Quincey all penned numerous essays on diverse subjects. In the 20th century, a number of essayists tried to explain the new movements in art and culture by using essays (e.g., T.S. Eliot). Whereas some essayists used essays for strident political themes, Robert Louis Stevenson and Willa Cather wrote lighter essays. Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, and Charles du Bos wrote literary criticism essays.
Main article: Zuihitsu
As with the novel, essays existed in Japan several centuries before they developed in Europe with a genre of essays known as zuihitsu — loosely connected essays and fragmented ideas. Zuihitsu have existed since almost the beginnings of Japanese literature. Many of the most noted early works of Japanese literature are in this genre. Notable examples include The Pillow Book (c. 1000), by court lady Sei Shōnagon, and Tsurezuregusa (1330), by particularly renowned Japanese Buddhist monk Yoshida Kenkō. Kenkō described his short writings similarly to Montaigne, referring to them as "nonsensical thoughts" written in "idle hours". Another noteworthy difference from Europe is that women have traditionally written in Japan, though the more formal, Chinese-influenced writings of male writers were more prized at the time.
Forms and styles
This section describes the different forms and styles of essay writing. These forms and styles are used by an array of authors, including university students and professional essayists.
Cause and effect
The defining features of a "cause and effect" essay are causal chains that connect from a cause to an effect, careful language, and chronological or emphatic order. A writer using this rhetorical method must consider the subject, determine the purpose, consider the audience, think critically about different causes or consequences, consider a thesis statement, arrange the parts, consider the language, and decide on a conclusion.
Classification and division
Classification is the categorization of objects into a larger whole while division is the breaking of a larger whole into smaller parts.
Compare and contrast
Compare and contrast essays are characterized by a basis for comparison, points of comparison, and analogies. It is grouped by the object (chunking) or by point (sequential). The comparison highlights the similarities between two or more similar objects while contrasting highlights the differences between two or more objects. When writing a compare/contrast essay, writers need to determine their purpose, consider their audience, consider the basis and points of comparison, consider their thesis statement, arrange and develop the comparison, and reach a conclusion. Compare and contrast is arranged emphatically.
Descriptive writing is characterized by sensory details, which appeal to the physical senses, and details that appeal to a reader's emotional, physical, or intellectual sensibilities. Determining the purpose, considering the audience, creating a dominant impression, using descriptive language, and organizing the description are the rhetorical choices to consider when using a description. A description is usually arranged spatially but can also be chronological or emphatic. The focus of a description is the scene. Description uses tools such as denotative language, connotative language, figurative language, metaphor, and simile to arrive at a dominant impression. One university essay guide states that "descriptive writing says what happened or what another author has discussed; it provides an account of the topic".Lyric essays are an important form of descriptive essays.
In the dialectic form of the essay, which is commonly used in philosophy, the writer makes a thesis and argument, then objects to their own argument (with a counterargument), but then counters the counterargument with a final and novel argument. This form benefits from presenting a broader perspective while countering a possible flaw that some may present. This type is sometimes called an ethics paper.
An exemplification essay is characterized by a generalization and relevant, representative, and believable examples including anecdotes. Writers need to consider their subject, determine their purpose, consider their audience, decide on specific examples, and arrange all the parts together when writing an exemplification essay.
An essayist writes a familiar essay if speaking to a single reader, writing about both themselves, and about particular subjects. Anne Fadiman notes that "the genre's heyday was the early nineteenth century," and that its greatest exponent was Charles Lamb. She also suggests that while critical essays have more brain than the heart, and personal essays have more heart than brain, familiar essays have equal measures of both.
A history essay sometimes referred to as a thesis essay describes an argument or claim about one or more historical events and supports that claim with evidence, arguments, and references. The text makes it clear to the reader why the argument or claim is as such.
A narrative uses tools such as flashbacks, flash-forwards, and transitions that often build to a climax. The focus of a narrative is the plot. When creating a narrative, authors must determine their purpose, consider their audience, establish their point of view, use dialogue, and organize the narrative. A narrative is usually arranged chronologically.
An argumentative essay is a critical piece of writing, aimed at presenting objective analysis of the subject matter, narrowed down to a single topic. The main idea of all the criticism is to provide an opinion either of positive or negative implication. As such, a critical essay requires research and analysis, strong internal logic and sharp structure. Its structure normally builds around introduction with a topic's relevance and a thesis statement, body paragraphs with arguments linking back to the main thesis, and conclusion. In addition, an argumentative essay may include a refutation section where conflicting ideas are acknowledged, described, and criticized. Each argument of argumentative essay should be supported with sufficient evidence, relevant to the point.
An economic essay can start with a thesis, or it can start with a theme. It can take a narrative course and a descriptive course. It can even become an argumentative essay if the author feels the need. After the introduction, the author has to do his/her best to expose the economic matter at hand, to analyze it, evaluate it, and draw a conclusion. If the essay takes more of a narrative form then the author has to expose each aspect of the economic puzzle in a way that makes it clear and understandable for the reader
A reflective essay is an analytical piece of writing in which the writer describes a real or imaginary scene, event, interaction, passing thought, memory, or form — adding a personal reflection on the meaning of the topic in the author's life. Thus, the focus is not merely descriptive. The writer doesn’t just describe the situation, but revisits the scene with more detail and emotion to examine what went well, or reveal a need for additional learning — and may relate what transpired to the rest of the author's life.
Other logical structures
The logical progression and organizational structure of an essay can take many forms. Understanding how the movement of thought is managed through an essay has a profound impact on its overall cogency and ability to impress. A number of alternative logical structures for essays have been visualized as diagrams, making them easy to implement or adapt in the construction of an argument.
Main article: Free response
In countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, essays have become a major part of a formal education in the form of free response questions. Secondary students in these countries are taught structured essay formats to improve their writing skills, and essays are often used by universities in these countries in selecting applicants (seeadmissions essay). In both secondary and tertiary education, essays are used to judge the mastery and comprehension of the material. Students are asked to explain, comment on, or assess a topic of study in the form of an essay. In some courses, university students must complete one or more essays over several weeks or months. In addition, in fields such as the humanities and social sciences, mid-term and end of term examinations often require students to write a short essay in two or three hours.
In these countries, so-called academic essays also called papers, are usually more formal than literary ones. They may still allow the presentation of the writer's own views, but this is done in a logical and factual manner, with the use of the first person often discouraged. Longer academic essays (often with a word limit of between 2,000 and 5,000 words) are often more discursive. They sometimes begin with a short summary analysis of what has previously been written on a topic, which is often called a literature review.
Longer essays may also contain an introductory page that defines words and phrases of the essay's topic. Most academic institutions require that all substantial facts, quotations, and other supporting material in an essay be referenced in a bibliography or works cited page at the end of the text. This scholarly convention helps others (whether teachers or fellow scholars) to understand the basis of facts and quotations the author uses to support the essay's argument and helps readers evaluate to what extent the argument is supported by evidence, and to evaluate the quality of that evidence. The academic essay tests the student's ability to present their thoughts in an organized way and is designed to test their intellectual capabilities.
One of the challenges facing universities is that in some cases, students may submit essays purchased from an essay mill (or "paper mill") as their own work. An "essay mill" is a ghostwriting service that sells pre-written essays to university and college students. Since plagiarism is a form of academic dishonesty or academic fraud, universities and colleges may investigate papers they suspect are from an essay mill by using plagiarism detection software, which compares essays against a database of known mill essays and by orally testing students on the contents of their papers.
Magazine or newspaper
Main article: Long-form journalism
Essays often appear in magazines, especially magazines with an intellectual bent, such as The Atlantic and Harpers. Magazine and newspaper essays use many of the essay types described in the section on forms and styles (e.g., descriptive essays, narrative essays, etc.). Some newspapers also print essays in the op-ed section.
Employment essays detailing experience in a certain occupational field are required when applying for some jobs, especially government jobs in the United States. Essays known as Knowledge Skills and Executive Core Qualifications are required when applying to certain US federal government positions.
A KSA, or "Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities," is a series of narrative statements that are required when applying to Federal government job openings in the United States. KSAs are used along with resumes to determine who the best applicants are when several candidates qualify for a job. The knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary for the successful performance of a position are contained on each job vacancy announcement. KSAs are brief and focused essays about one's career and educational background that presumably qualify one to perform the duties of the position being applied for.
An Executive Core Qualification, or ECQ, is a narrative statement that is required when applying to Senior Executive Service positions within the US Federal government. Like the KSAs, ECQs are used along with resumes to determine who the best applicants are when several candidates qualify for a job. The Office of Personnel Management has established five executive core qualifications that all applicants seeking to enter the Senior Executive Service must demonstrate.
A film essay (or "cinematic essay") consists of the evolution of a theme or an idea rather than a plot per se, or the film literally being a cinematic accompaniment to a narrator reading an essay. From another perspective, an essay film could be defined as a documentary film visual basis combined with a form of commentary that contains elements of self-portrait (rather than autobiography), where the signature (rather than the life story) of the filmmaker is apparent. The cinematic essay often blends documentary, fiction, and experimental film making using tones and editing styles.
The genre is not well-defined but might include propaganda works of early Soviet parliamentarians like Dziga Vertov, present-day filmmakers including Chris Marker,Michael Moore (Roger & Me (1989), Bowling for Columbine (2002) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)), Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line (1988)), Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me: A Film of Epic Portions) and Agnès Varda. Jean-Luc Godard describes his recent work as "film-essays". Two filmmakers whose work was the antecedent to the cinematic essay include Georges Méliès and Bertolt Brecht. Méliès made a short film (The Coronation of Edward VII (1902)) about the 1902 coronation of King Edward VII, which mixes actual footage with shots of a recreation of the event. Brecht was a playwright who experimented with film and incorporated film projections into some of his plays.Orson Welles made an essay film in his own pioneering style, released in 1974, called F for Fake, which dealt specifically with art forger Elmyr de Hory and with the themes of deception, "fakery," and authenticity in general. These are often published online on video hosting services.
David Winks Gray's article "The essay film in action" states that the "essay film became an identifiable form of filmmaking in the 1950s and '60s". He states that since that time, essay films have tended to be "on the margins" of the filmmaking the world. Essay films have a "peculiar searching, questioning tone ... between documentary and fiction" but without "fitting comfortably" into either genre. Gray notes that just like written essays, essay films "tend to marry the personal voice of a guiding narrator (often the director) with a wide swath of other voices". The University of Wisconsin Cinematheque website echoes some of Gray's comments; it calls a film essay an "intimate and allusive" genre that "catches filmmakers in a pensive mood, ruminating on the margins between fiction and documentary" in a manner that is "refreshingly inventive, playful, and idiosyncratic".
In the realm of music, composer Samuel Barber wrote a set of "Essays for Orchestra," relying on the form and content of the music to guide the listener's ear, rather than any extra-musical plot or story.
A photographic essay strives to cover a topic with a linked series of photographs. Photo essays range from purely photographic works to photographs with captions or small notes to full-text essays with a few or many accompanying photographs. Photo essays can be sequential in nature, intended to be viewed in a particular order — or they may consist of non-ordered photographs viewed all at once or in an order that the viewer chooses. All photo essays are collections of photographs, but not all collections of photographs are photo essays. Photo essays often address a certain issue or attempt to capture the character of places and events.
In the visual arts, an essay is a preliminary drawing or sketch that forms a basis for a final painting or sculpture, made as a test of the work's composition (this meaning of the term, like several of those following, comes from the word essayJA's meaning of "attempt" or "trial").
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- ^Chapter 7: Cause and Effect in Glenn, Cheryl. Making Sense: A Real-World Rhetorical Reader. Ed. Denise B. Wydra, et al. Second ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2005.
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- ^Chapter 6: Comparison and Contrast in Glenn, Cheryl. Making Sense: A Real-World Rhetorical Reader. Ed. Denise B. Wydra, et al. Second ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2005.
- ^Chapter 2: Description in Glenn, Cheryl. Making Sense: A Real-World Rhetorical Reader. Ed. Denise B. Wydra, et al. Second ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2005.
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Literary Essays and School EssaysBy Maeve Maddox
As a literary term, essay is defined as “a short non-fiction composition.”
What many people mean by “essay” these days, however, is quite different from what it means as a literary genre.
The Literary Essay
The word essay comes from the French word essayer “to try, to attempt” and still has this meaning in English, both as a noun and as a verb:
That’s his first essay into the cattle business.
We shall essay to remedy the situation.
The first writer to apply the term to the type of reflective and entertaining pieces he liked to write was the Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). The writer who popularized the essay form in English was Francis Bacon (1561-1626).
For the professional writer, the essay is the ideal genre with which to practice the writing craft. It offers the opportunity to focus on a topic and discover what one thinks about it.
In a much quoted passage from his Collected Essays, Aldous Huxley describes the essay as
a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything.”
Huxley says that essays can be studied “most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference” and goes on to identify the “three poles” as:
• the pole of the personal and the autobiographical
• the pole of the objective, the factual, the concrete-particular
• the pole of the abstract-universal
Huxley’s opinion is that most essayists are at home in one, or at most, two, of the three types of essay. The writer comfortable with all three writes “the most richly satisfying essays.”
Montaigne remains a model for modern essayists because he was able to combine the three poles. George Orwell is another useful model. For more recent examples of the literary essay, browse the pages of such publications as The Village Voice and Slate.
How Long is an Essay?
Although an essay is defined as “a short non-fiction composition,” in the hands of a professional writer with plenty to say, it can be pretty long.
The essays of Montaigne and Bacon, for example, can run to 4,000 words. The famous essay “Self-Reliance” by American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) exceeds 10,000 words.
For the non-professional writer, the high school student applying for college, for example, the “essay” is quite short.
College entrance essays fall in the 500-700 word range. It’s rare that a high school student or college freshman is asked to write an essay any longer than 1.000 words.
The greatest difference between the literary essay and the school essay is that the literary essay springs from the interests of the writer and can be a joy to write.
The essay written as a school assignment is often regarded by the writer as drudgery.
The Essay as Chore
Two main reasons that essay writing is perceived as a chore by students are
1) they don’t want to do it
2) they’ve had insufficient reading experience.
We learn our first language by hearing it spoken. We absorb the forms of written language by reading it.
Students with limited reading experience will find essay writing more difficult than those who are avid readers. They have not internalized the patterns of written English.
As a result, sentences written by ill-read students seldom vary from simple or compound. The most common coordinating conjunction found in this type of essay is and. The most common subordinating conjunctions are because, then, and before.
The reading level of this type of “assignment essay” rarely rises above sixth grade. That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing within the framework of communication. Much popular material is written at this level.
The vocabulary in student essays tends to fluctuate between the elementary and the exotic. Many, if not most, high school students acquire advanced vocabulary by studying word lists, not by encountering them in the context of books. As a result they often misuse words because of insufficient understanding of their meanings.
Nevertheless, even without a strong reading background students can master the skill of producing a five-paragraph essay that is acceptable for most school assignments.
The Five-Paragraph Essay
The five-paragraph essay is often criticized for being too restricted; too cut-and-dried. It is said to inhibit creativity.
But not all the young people being asked to write essays are gifted with creativity. And even the creative ones need to learn the basics of composition before soaring off to their creative heights. The five-paragraph essay remains a useful workhorse.
Parts of the Essay
Every essay has three main parts. In the five-paragraph essay they are arranged this way:
• Introduction (first paragraph): states the topic and theme; Briefly states three points to be made about the theme.
• Body (paragraphs 2-4): each paragraph expands and supports one of the points mentioned in the introduction.
• Conclusion (paragraph 5): restates the theme and sums up the argument in a satisfying way.
The Hardest Part of Writing an Essay
Essay writing guides can help, but the most important aspect of any writing assignment lies with the writer. Only the writer can answer this most important question: What do you want to say?
Time spent in pinning down the topic and theme of your essay is never wasted. Don’t begin writing before you know
1. what you are writing about
2. what you want to say about it
3. to whom you are saying it
With school assignments, the essay topic is often part of the assignment, but the student is usually given a choice of more than one. If at all possible, choose a topic in which you feel some interest.
Have a destination. It’s not enough to say you’re writing about “war” or “civic responsibility” or “gun control.” What do you want to say about the topic? What do you want your reader to feel about it after having read your essay? One of the most frequent faults of freshman essays is that they leave the reader wondering “so what?”
Who’s your reader? Picturing your reader in your mind as you write will influence your writing style. If a teacher is your target audience, nonstandard vocabulary and grammar are not an option.
A common fault among student writers is the failure to distinguish between a general statement and a supporting statement. Inexperienced writers often attempt to support one general statement with another general statement: My sister is annoying. She really bothers me. I can’t stand some of the things she does. All three of these statements are generalizations.
Specific, concrete examples are needed to support general statements.
General statement: My sister is annoying.
Supporting statement: She eats my favorite cereal on the sly and then puts the empty box back into the cabinet.
Some helpful links
A good starting place for the insecure writer is Ali Hale’s article on the writing process.
A good guide to and discussion of the five-paragraph essay can be found here.
A detailed step-by-step guide to writing the student essay can be found here. The steps include pre-writing, outlining, drafting and revising,
Finally, here’s an example of a five-paragraph essayRecommended for you: « Retracing your steps »
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7 Responses to “Literary Essays and School Essays”
- Silvia G.Martinez
Please Maeve could give the exact definition of “composition” (for essays we already have it). Your point of view is so innovative that probably the concept can be seen differently. Thank you.
How do we go about getting the free e-book on basic english grammar?
great explanation of parts of essays its really an informative post thanks for sharing
- Rose Patrick
Nice post it helps lots to students now a days students make use of essay writing to improve there skill great thanks
- Vinod Kapoor
How to write sarcastic articles, hitting on the system,personalities and exploding the myth around them. Especially in media and politics, where high brow conceits, impose their persona on the subjects !!
- Shirley, in Berkeley
I have always used “essay” for writing and “assay” for attempting. Interesting to find that either can be used for taking a stab at something!
- Brad K.
I needed the reminder of structure. I tend to forget about the intro and conclusion parts . . and often leave out the planning. I guess that is what separates a blog post (in general) from an essay. That is, an essay could be a blog post, but a blog post is often not an essay. At least, the way I have been writing.