The term "essay" is a commonly used one, so let's begin by defining it to make sure we understand exactly what it is. An essay is a piece of nonfiction writing, generally written in prose and focused on a single topic. Does this definition sound a little broad? It is. That's because, as you'll see, essays can vary greatly.
Essays can take many different approaches, including:
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.
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 likely have a fairly good sense of what academic essays are, and we will cover them in more detail soon. For now though, a polemic is an aggressive, controversial, or contentious argument.
Like other forms of prose writing, essays use sentences and paragraphs, and should include a structure of ideas that flows logically from one point to the next. As they follow their structure, most essays end up with three primary components, though of course there's room for variation, even within the confines of traditional academic essays.
In terms of qualifying as an essay, there are no rules regarding length or number of paragraphs, or even the structure of an essay. 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. This type of essay includes 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. A final, fifth paragraph concludes the essay, often by summarizing a repeating part of its introduction. They tend to look something like this:
Note the 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 essay's framework.
However, there is a lot more to essays than this particular form, as many ideas, arguments, and explorations would suffer to be constrained by the sometimes limiting structure. 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 their thoughts can be expressed. In addition, 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 quite rare to find an experienced writer using this format, unless specifically required to do so.
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.
EXAMPLEFor example, essays can make use of figurative language, description, dialogue, and other so-called fictional writing techniques. 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 piece of creative writing.
In addition, nontraditional introductions are becoming more and more acceptable in academic circles. These introductions can include various hooks or ways of engaging the reader, and they often take up more than one paragraph. Likewise, nontraditional conclusions are on the rise, including various approaches to wrapping up ideas and engaging readers. These, too, may include more than one paragraph.
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.
EXAMPLEFor 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.
Truthfully, after school, this often doesn't change much, as many professional situations place similar demands on graduated writers, responding to items like cover letters, business proposals, and grant applications. The point is that students, and all 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. Here are several useful strategies for responding to a prompt:
EXAMPLEIf, 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.
Source: Adapted from Sophia Instructor Gavin McCall