An essay is a form of writing, normally written from an author’s opinion. Essays are quite often in the non-fiction genre but they are not always objective. They can be written as a narrative as well. Criticisms of works of literature such as poems, plays and novels are often discussed in essays as well as political statements, informed debates on issues, descriptions of ordinary life, and recounts and thoughts of the author.

There is no really good, clear way of defining an essay as they have similarities with articles and short stories. Most essays today are written in prose, but essays written in poetic form have sometimes been referred to as essays.

The essay in the Literary Genre

The word essay came from the French form essayer meaning ‘to try’ or ‘to attempt’. The very first writer to describe his writing as essays was the Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). He was influenced especially by the writings of Plutarch, a translation of whose Oeuvres Morales (Moral Works) into French had just been published by Jacques Amyot. Montaigne started to write his essays in 1572; the first edition, entitled Essais, was published in two volumes in 1580. For the remainder of his life he spent time rewriting earlier essays and making up new ones. Francis Bacon’s essays, published as a book in 1597, 1612, and 1625, become the first works written in English that became labelled as essays. Ben Johnson was the first to use the word essayist in English in 1609, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Well known essayists include: Virginia Woolf, Voltaire, Adrienne Rich, Alamgir Hashmi, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Natalia Ginzburg, Sara Suleri, Annie Dillard, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Charles Lamb, Leo Tolstoy, William Hazlitt, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, Walter Bagehot, George Orwell, George Bernard Shaw, John D’Agata, Gore Vidal, Marguerite Yourcenar, J.M. Coetzee, Gaston Waringhien and E.B. White. The labelling of an essay was not so easy. However, Aldous Huxley, a renowned essayist, may assist in the understanding:

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“Like the novel, the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything. By tradition, almost by definition, the essay is a short piece, and it is therefore impossible to give all things full play within the limits of a single essay. But a collection of essays can cover almost as much ground, and cover it almost as thoroughly, as can a long novel. Montaigne’s Third Book is the equivalent, very nearly, of a good slice of the Comédie Humaine. Essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference. There is the pole of the personal and the autobiographical; there is the pole of the objective, the factual, the concrete-particular; and there is the pole of the abstract-universal. Most essayists are at home and at their best in the neighborhood of only one of the essay’s three poles, or at the most only in the neighborhood of two of them. There are the predominantly personal essayists, who write fragments of reflective autobiography and who look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description. There are the predominantly objective essayists who do not speak directly of themselves, but turn their attention outward to some literary or scientific or political theme. … And how splendid, how truly oracular are the utterances of the great generalizers! … The most richly satisfying essays are those which 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” (Collected Essays, “Preface”).

The Essay as an Educational Tool

More recently, essays have formed an important component of formal education. Secondary students are specifically targeted and they are instructed in structured essay layouts to aid in the improvement of their writing level and essays are, at times, used by universities in the selecting of candidates (see admissions essay). In both the high school and post secondary environments, essays are utilised to assess the mastery and understanding of information. Students are requested to explain, provide an opinion, or evaluate a subject of study in the framework of a written essay. Academic essays have a more formal structure than literary ones. They, however, may permit the outlining of the author’s own opinions, but this is performed in a reasoned and objective way, where the use of the first person is simply not allowed.

The five-paragraph essay

The five paragraph essay is often the first encounter students have with the genre and it is taught with a core structure in mind which requires an introduction including the thesis statement along with three paragraphs that make up the main body. An idea is presented in each paragraph which substantiates the thesis along with back up evidence and formal quotations; and the final paragraph is a conclusion, which reiterates the thesis and provides a summation of the supporting ideas. The rigidity of this format has come under criticism as it lacks creativity and supports a tight repetitive structure However, supporters point out that it shows students how to organise their thoughts more clearly while writing.

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Academic essays

When it comes to University level, lengthy academic essays are more the norm (often with a word count of between 2,000 to 5,000 words) and are often more discursive. Often they commence with a brief analysis and summary of work that has been previously written about the topic which is commonly referred to as a literature review. The lengthier essays may also be composed of a whole page devoted to the introduction alone and words and phrases from the title are clearly defined. The majority of academic establishments will ensure that all important facts, quotations, and other back up material utilised within an essay be written down in a defined layout in a bibliography which is placed at the end of the essay. This academic method permits others (whether teachers or fellow students) to interpret the roots of the facts and quotations used to back up the essay’s argument, and therefore assist to evaluate the credibility of the argument and the sources used as useful evidence. The academic essay assesses the student’s aptitude to offer their thoughts in a logical manner thus tracking their intellectual ability. Some of the sorts of essays are:

Descriptive essays

The ultimate aim of a descriptive essay is to portray a clear image of a person, place, object, event, or argument. It will present facts that will permit the reader to clearly imagine the thing being described.

Narrative essays

A narrative essay is written with the aim of describing a series of events from a more personal position, and can be presented in the first person present tense or first person past tense. They might not necessarily follow a defined order but they cover the progress of a person passing through a number of experiences and reflects on the development that takes place. The centre of the essay more often than not clearly portrays the opinion of the narrator which is often quite subjective.

Compare and contrast essays

The role of an essay that compares and contrasts is to outline the relationship that has developed between two or more things. Overall, the target is to display that surface differences or similarities are simply not enough, and a closer study exposes their less apparent, but highly significant, relationships or differences.

Persuasive essays

A persuasive essay’s aim is for the writer to attempt to convince the reader to support an idea or agree with an opinion. The writer’s aim is to persuade the reader that her or his point of view is an acceptable one. The persuasive essay should be styled in such a way that it is forceful enough to keep the reader’s focus, and the writer’s point of view should be sufficiently supported by strong back up details.

Argumentative essays

Topics which are subject to considerable debate often become the subject matter for Argumentative essays and they are often serious in nature and agreement is often difficult to obtain. An argument is a viewpoint that is amalgamated with its back up reasons. Argumentative essays go out make a claim on an issue and then give reasons for considering that the claim is undeniable.