What is an essay: everything you need to know about writing

When talking about an essay, we normally mean a piece of academic writing, traditionally from an author’s point of view. Evidently, essays turn to be non-fictional, though often subjective. They can also come with narrative. This type of writing work can cover a wide range of things, including observations of daily life, literary criticism, learned arguments, political manifestos, recollections, to say nothing of reflections of the author.

The definition of an essay is quite uncertain, overlapping with those of an article and a brief story. Almost all up-to-date essays are written in prose, though works in verse may sometimes be defined as essays too.

While brevity normally defines an essay, such works as John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding as well as Thomas Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population serve as counterexamples.

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The essay as a literary genre

The word “essay” originally derives from the French infinitive “essayer”, which stands for ‘to try’. The Frenchman Michel de Montaigne turned to be the first author to label his works as essays. Being inspired by the works of Plutarch, a translation of Oeuvres morales into French released by Jacques Amyot, Montaigne started composing his essays in 1572. And the first edition, named “Essais”, was released in two volumes in 1580. For the rest of his life he kept revising previously released essays and composing new ones.

Essays by Francis Bacon, published in book form in 1597, 1612 and also in 1625, happened to be the first works in English, describing themselves as essays. In 1609, Ben Jonson first utilized the word “essayist” in English, as the Oxford English Dictionary states. Notable essayists included:

  • Virginia Woolf
  • Adrienne Rich
  • Voltaire, Joan
  • Didion, Alamgir Hashmi
  • Natalia Ginzburg
  • Sara Suleri
  • Susan Sontag
  • Annie Dillard
  • Joseph Addison
  • Charles Lamb
  • Leo Tolstoy
  • Richard Steele
  • William Hazlitt
  • Macaulay
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Thomas Babington
  • Henry David Thoreau
  • Mary Shelley
  • Walter Bagehot
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley, etc

It’s quite difficult to define the literary genre into which essays fall. However, we may try to use the following remarks by Aldous Huxley. This leading essayist told that just like the novel, the essay appears to be a literary device for saying nearly everything about almost anything. Traditionally, the essay is a brief piece of academic writing, and therefore, it’s unreal to give all things full play within the limits of a single paper. However, a collection of essays can easily cover almost as much ground as a long novel does. Essays are associated with a literary genre, whose high variability can be explored most effectively in a three-poled frame of reference. There’s the pole of the personal as well as the autobiographical, and there’s the pole of the objective, not to mention the concrete-particular, the factual and the pole of the abstract-universal.

There’re the predominantly personal essayists, used to writing fragments of reflective autobiography and looking at the world through the keyhole of descriptions and anecdotes. Additionally, there are the predominantly objective essayists, speaking directly of themselves, but turning their attention outward to some political, literary or scientific topic.

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The essay as a pedagogical tool

Previously, essays had become a key part of a formal education. Secondary learners are taught structured essay formats in order to improve their writing skills. Moreover, essays are often employed by universities when it comes to selecting applicants. In both tertiary and secondary education, essays are utilized for the purpose of judging the mastery as well as comprehension of the material. Learners are asked to comment on, explain or estimate a topic of study in the form of an essay.

Compared to literary essays, academic ones are more formal. They might still suggest the presentation of the author’s own views, though it’s carried out in a logical and factual manner and the use of the first person is often discouraged.

The five-paragraph essay

Many learners first study the genre of a five paragraph essay. That’s a highly structured form, which needs an introduction, which presents the thesis statement, up to three body paragraphs. Each of them discloses an idea to back the thesis together with supporting evidence as well as quotations, to say nothing of a conclusion, restating the thesis and summarizing the supporting points. The use of this format is quite controversial. Some folks argue that it teaches learners how to organize their thoughts in the proper way in writing, while opponents characterize its structure as repetitive and rigid.

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Academic essays

Longer academic essays, usually with a word limit, ranging between 2,000- 5,000 words, often appear to be more discursive. Sometimes they start with a short summary analysis of what has been written on a topic before, which is often dubbed a literature review. Longer essays might also come with an introductory page in which phrases and words from the title are tightly defined. The vast majority of academic institutions require that all substantial quotations, facts as well as other supporting material employed in a certain essay are referenced in a bibliography at the end of the paper. This scholarly convention enables other folks, including scholars and teachers to understand the basis of the quotations and facts utilized to back the essay’s argument, and thus helping to evaluate to what extent the argument is backed by evidence, and to assess the overall quality of that evidence. The academic essay evaluates the learner’s ability to present his or her thoughts in rather an organized way and also tests his or her intellectual capabilities.

Most common essay types

Descriptive essays: The major purpose of this essay type is to provide a bright picture of an individual, object, location, event or debate. Moreover, it provides details, enabling the audience to imagine the item depicted.

Narrative essays: The purpose of a narrative essay is to illustrate a course of events from a subjective vantage point. It can be written in the first-person. Although not always chronological, narrative essays normally follow the development of an individual through a series of reflections and experiences. The key focus of the essay is to clearly identify the narrator’s point of view, and also to express common features of subjectivity.

Compare and contrast essays: These essays develop the relationship between two or more things. Apparently, the objective is to demonstrate that superficial similarities or differences happen to be inadequate. Closer examination discloses their unobvious and significant differences or relations.

Persuasive essays: In this case, the author tries to convince the audience to accept an idea or simply agree with a point of view. The author’s purpose is to persuade the audience that her or his point of view is reasonable enough. It needs to be written in a style, which grabs and holds the reader’s attention tight, and the author’s point of view should be supported by strong supporting details.

Argumentative essays: They’re often utilized for the purpose of addressing controversial issues, for instance, suggesting some evident disagreement. In this case, an argument appears to be a position combined with its backing reasons. Argumentative papers set out a major claim and then provide solid reasons to think that the claim is true. Imitation essays suggest that the author pulls out the key thesis and the outline of a certain paper, and then creates an essay in his or her own style.

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