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The Essay

The Essay

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson teaches the basics of the essay as a literary form.

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall, thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? Today will be all about the essay. We'll look at what essays are, then go over components of an essay, as well as common forms that they can take. Then we'll talk about the ways that essays allow for creative expression. And finally, we'll discuss how to respond to essay prompts in and out of an academic setting.

The term "essay" gets thrown around a lot, so before we go any further, let's define it to make sure we're all on the same page. An essay is a piece of nonfiction writing, generally written in prose and focused on a single topic. But doesn't this definition sound a little broad? It is. And that's because, as we'll see soon enough, essays can vary greatly.

They can take many different approaches including interpretations, speculations, analyses, polemics, manifestos, descriptions, personal reflections, and persuasions. About the only thing essays like these have in common is their length, as the term "essay" generally refers only to short works, at least shorter when compared to books. The essay is a relatively young genre of writing, younger than poetry, drama, myth, and even short fiction. It came into being at around the same times the novel, but didn't really come into its own until the Enlightenment period, as the emphasis of the time on individualism and intellect tended to make people seek and value a new way to reason through ideas and to share their ideas with other thinkers and the public. The sentiment is still behind the writing of many, or arguably all, essays written today.

Today, essays take different forms, depending on the context and purpose under which they're written. Two of the most common and different types of essays are the academic essay and the polemical essay, or polemic, for short. You probably have a pretty good sense of what academic essays are, but we'll go over them in more detail soon. For now though, a polemic is an aggressive, controversial, or contentious argument. An essay that makes a polemical argument is generally considered not to be academic, as the differences between the detached, intellectual prose style favored by academics is generally not found in the incendiary styles of the polemic.

Like other forms of prose writing, essays use sentences and paragraphs and should include a structure of ideas the flows logically from one point to the next. And as they follow their structure, most essays end up with three primary components. Of course, there's room for variation, even within the confines of traditional academic essays.

Essays generally begin with an introduction that lays out the primary purpose, goal, or point of the essay. Most include a thesis statement somewhere in the introduction, given its centrality to the essay's purpose. Essays also include what are usually called body paragraphs, which are paragraphs that contain the primary points or ideas of the essay, making up the body of the work. Then usually comes a conclusion, a final paragraph or two that wraps up the main points of the essay and may also include a call to action or may point to further questions, ideas, and areas of thinking that are beyond, but linked to the essay's scope.

In terms of qualifying as an essay, there are no rules regarding length or number of paragraphs or even the structure of an essay. So obviously, the length and depth of any of these components is likewise variable depending on the writer's needs and the occasion for writing. One of the most common forms of essay is the five paragraph essay. These essays include an introduction as its first paragraph with the thesis, followed by three body paragraphs that each make a single point or express a single idea, and also support the introduction's thesis. And a final, fifth paragraph that concludes the essay, often by summarizing a repeating part of its introduction.

They tend to look something like this-- and introduction with a clearly stated thesis leading to three separate body paragraphs, each with its own topic and topic sentence, and a conclusion that refers back to what's already been said. This is a form that's widely taught to beginning writers and it's a useful one to know, especially in a testing environment as these tend to reward adherence to structures like the five paragraph essays framework. However, there's a lot more to essays than this, as many ideas, arguments, and explorations would suffer to be constrained by the sometimes limiting structure.

And often, writers who've mastered this form are hesitant to part with it, but they should, as a five paragraph essay format can limit the depth and nuance with which they're thoughts can be expressed. And because it's been taught so often and for so long, more advanced writers, and some beginning students too, tend to think of the five paragraph essay as cliche and boring. This isn't necessarily correct, though often it's not wrong. That being said, it's actually pretty rare to find an experienced writer using this format, unless specifically required to.

There is, of course, no one form of essaying that's more correct than another, simply different forms that are best suited for different functions. And so students of writing should do what every other writer does, construct their essays based on the needs of the thesis and their goals for the writing project itself.

Though essays aren't always associated with high levels of creativity-- at least not as often as their fictional and poetic counterparts-- there's still a lot of room for creative expression, even with the somewhat regimented single thesis structure. For example, essays can make use of figurative language, description, dialogue, and other so-called fictional writing techniques. Similarly, interesting word choice and sentences written in an engaging, elegant, or diverse style can do as much for an essay as they can for any other piece of creative writing. And nontraditional introductions are becoming more and more acceptable in academic circles.

These introductions can include various hooks or ways of engaging the reader, and often they take up more than one paragraph. Likewise, nontraditional conclusions are on the rise, including various approaches to wrapping up ideas and engaging readers. And again, many include more than one paragraph. And many of the essays being written and published do much more to experiment with voice, persona, and style then could be accommodated by a more traditional format. Because there are no set rules for essays, at least in a broad sense, students have a lot of control over what goes into their essays and how they express their ideas and points, just like other writers.

All that being said, the fact is that many of the essays that beginning writers will ever write are written in response to prompts and assignments. These prompts often identify the topic to be written about or provide other parameters for the essay. For example, students receive prompts from college admission exams and applications, applications for scholarships, fellowships, grants, and internships, as well as tests like the SAT or ACT, and of course, during courses as homework for the most part.

And the thing is, after school, this often doesn't change much, as many professional situations place similar demands on graduated writers, responding to things like cover letters, business proposals, and grant applications. The point is that students, and I'll beginning writers, need to learn to read any given prompt for what it is, understanding its meaning and goals and to see how best they can respond to it given their knowledge, their strengths, and their weaknesses. One of the best ways to do this is to seek out as much information as possible before beginning.

If, for example, an in-class prompt or assignment seems ambiguous or unclear, a student could seek out the teacher or teacher's assistant and learn more about his or her expectations for the assignment. Another useful technique is to use the prompt during the brainstorming prewriting phases of the process. And students should return to the prompt when drafting, as well as during the revision and editing processes in order to confirm that the essay they're building still meets the requirements of the prompt and the expectations of the teacher or evaluator.

If, for example, a student in an introductory history class was assigned a short personal essay about what life would have been like for him or her living in ancient Greece, he or she would probably have to respond to that prompt differently than they would to an advanced biology lab report that will take all semester to perform and record. And the only thing that either prompt would have in common with an assigned research paper on a linguistic history of English would be the fact that they're all prompts, and as such, they're all subject to the same strategies of interpretation and response.

So what did we learn today? We learned a lot, all about essays. We talked about the components of an essay, then looked at the common forms of essays, from the five paragraph form to others that allow for more creative expression. And finally, we talked about how to respond to essay prompts, both in and out of college. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

Terms to Know

An essay is a piece of nonfiction writing, generally written in prose and focused on a single topic.


A polemic is an aggressive, controversial, or contentious argument; an essay that makes a polemical argument.