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 essay